How much longer can we cope with Zoomocracy?
After nearly 12 months of WFH, I’m sure everyone who has watched the infamous Handforth Parish Council video is routing for Jackie Weaver to go into the Jungle, strut her stuff on Strictly or [insert your reality TV show of choice].
For built environment professionals who are used to working with communities and their representatives to steer development through the planning process, the video has become a totem to the late nights and effort that goes into trying to ensure that debate about a project is as fruitful as it can be.
But whilst that meeting is by no means representative of my experience working with councillors at all tiers of local government, it does throw a spotlight on whether the move towards virtual council meetings are good for democracy in the long term.
Let’s talk about the positives
There is no doubt in my mind that greater transparency leads to better understanding of the planning process which delivers better decisions. So I am all for meetings being broadcast online.
But it is clear that some local authorities either don’t have the technology or experience to make online meetings as participatory as they could be.
Some planning committees do not allow speakers to talk to councillors either in support or opposition to development; instead asking for a prepared statement that is read by an officer.
Others do a great job at allowing applicants and other interested parties to address the Committee, with the mute button at hand should anybody stray beyond their allotted time. Where it is done well virtual committees open-up the planning process to people who wouldn’t normally be motivated to speak at a meeting perhaps taking place on the other side of town.
Virtual meetings are also a godsend to the array of professions who would otherwise be travelling around the country to sit at meetings late into the evening, missing out on valuable time with family. The fact that I can present to councillors from Kendal to Kent on any given day is hugely productive and often elicits more useful feedback than an in-person briefing to multiple councillors may have done in the past.
Finally, there is clearly value in the fact that meetings can be recorded, something that opens up interesting questions for the collation of evidence and arguments for Appeals to the PINS or the Courts.
But what about the negatives?
What the Handforth Parish Council meeting does highlight is that the virtual meeting is overly dependent on the ability of the Chair to keep good order. A good chairperson is worth their weight in gold and some committees can fall short because of this.
I also wonder whether the influence of Officer advice has waned as a result of members not being physically sat together in a meeting room. Would advice be better received if it was given in person rather than across a screen? And would a more maverick voice on a committee be less inclined to wander from the sublime to the ridiculous if they felt the physical presence of their peers glaring at them from across the committee table?
So where do I sit?
Perhaps I’m old fashioned but I do think that as we come towards the end of the pandemic, the ability to once again hold physical council meetings will be a shot in the arm for democracy.
I envisage a hybrid model, perhaps along the lines of the House of Commons, where planning committees meet with participants able to attend in person or online.
Such a model would keep the increased levels of transparency that we currently have whilst retaining the structure, rigour and behaviours of physical meetings.
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