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Virtual council meetings: lessons so far…

Virtual council meetings: lessons so far…

After a slow start, we are now seeing a growing number of councils delivering their new virtual council meetings. Where this all leads post-crisis/lockdown in more normal times remains to be seen. The variety of solutions and approaches so far though, from both an academic and practical standpoint, is quite interesting. The DI team has been monitoring progress across the country to see how things are shaping up, what’s working and what’s not. Here’s our initial take:

Problem areas

The world over, virtual meetings are a new concept for all politicians: from the Welsh Government cabinet member who was caught live on air slagging off one of his colleagues, to the South Somerset District Council meeting where pranksters joined the meeting with a titillating variety of screen names, to the most mad example from California, where a planning committee member had to resign after being seen drinking beer and throwing his cat through the air during a meeting.

There are numerous examples of the awfulness of inept ‘user error’. Bearing in mind that our councillor population is somewhat older than the average tech-savvy millennial to say the least, there are clearly going to be some horror shows from those who haven’t worked out how to keep themselves on mute.

Problems so far have included:

Dullness – What we have seen from our viewing to date is that members are getting bored by the stilted, monotone, ‘death by PowerPoint’ nature of the meetings, meaning they are more likely to push on to the officers’ recommendations and vote more quickly as the meeting drags on when they have become tired of it and just want to get off the call. This could have implications for your application depending on where you are on the agenda.

Age/technology – Older members are simply just not in the debate in a few authorities and might be voting without the full information as there are often disruptions caused by councillors not knowing how to work their computer/microphone etc. This could mean that political overturns of officers’ recommendations could be less likely.

Committee analysis – It is harder to see party divides and committees are, on the whole, less partisan and seemingly are not playing to the public gallery as much…so far!

Inappropriate comments – There is great potential to learn about individuals and inter-councillor relationships through errors of judgement live on air. A good example of this was on view at Horsham District Council last week where a Tory councillor became angry at the Chairman for not selecting him to speak and, when unmuted accidentally by an officer, was heard saying: “If you don’t pick me next, you’re in trouble, mate.”

Live public participation – Milton Keynes is an interesting case where they have decided to allow members of the public to actually join meetings to give live representations, which of course is likely to mean that meetings may run over time as objectors drone on and officers are forced to switch off their microphones.

Examples of best practice

In general, a good number of councils are allowing applicants’ written representations, either by getting the chair or an officer to read out the comments. Some are even allowing pre-recorded audio/video representations from applicants which presents an interesting opportunity to speak direct to the committee.

From our viewing, the stand out local authority so far which has seemingly cracked it is Wealden District Council. Here’s why:

  • Members have clearly been set up with the technology and actually trained correctly.

  • They have rehearsed and come up with the best format.

  • All of the members have been present, the cameras have been set to landscape, all councillors know how to use the mute function and have been all able to respond instantly after being called upon to speak, meaning they have been able to move through the agenda more quickly.

  • Members request to speak using a chat function that is not viewable to the public and are then called by the chair in groups of three before the officers respond to the comments in turn. Everyone knows the procedure and this efficiency allows the meeting to run more slickly.

  • Only the member who is speaking is viewable – there is no multiscreen – and this is controlled by an officer that brings up the relevant councillor or officer when it is their turn to speak. Again this creates clarity and stops distraction from other members who might want to delay by butting in.

  • If there aren’t three people wishing to speak and the chair already feels like there has been some debate then they push for a proposer and seconder to move the meeting along, rather than asking everyone if they have said everything they want to say which can take a while.

  • Public representations of support/objection are not played during the meeting but are uploaded to the agenda beforehand, giving less opportunity for technical hiccups which slow the meeting down.

  • Whilst not uncommon, Wealden also has a comfort break to allow members and viewers to regain their energy every hour and a half or so which reduces fatigue.

  • Wealden has also shown the importance of a strong chair to keep the pace up and avoid stilted, long drawn out, circular debates.

We are not saying that Wealden has it completely perfected, but it is noticeably better than the rest we have witnessed so far.

General conclusions

Clearly this is ‘early days’ in all this and councils and councillors should become more proficient as their experience increases, but we can draw some early general conclusions to aid clients’ thinking:

Variety – The first point to make is that with each council finding its way on how to execute virtual meetings, there is much greater variety than normal and this gives each local authority even more of a unique flavour than before.

The influence of the chair – The chair is a more dominating and important figure in virtual meetings because they are almost always on screen and you cannot see the other members quite so often. Moreover, it is also harder for committee members to interject so easily due to the time lag and technology. This could be a good or a bad thing depending on the competence of the chair or whether they support or are opposed to your application!

Officers’ presentations more crucial – In normal times, the officers’ presentations at committee can either kill off a perfectly good scheme or resurrect a struggling application. This is even more true right now in the virtual committee setting; the officers’ words, tone and factual analysis carry much greater weight as there is inevitably less debate.

The challenge of the contentious – As a general rule so far, most authorities have not tested virtual meetings with contentious applications. When we see these, more difficulties may occur and political partisanship may more obviously reappear.

Recorded votes – Due to the slower, more stilted way committee voting happens, we are in effect getting ‘recorded votes’ – ie we can see how each member votes in turn – and councillors will be very aware of that, particularly on the more contentious applications. It is often more comfortable for a councillor to hide in the crowd in normal ‘block voting’. And of course the vote tend to happen alphabetically, so Councillor Aardvark gets first mover advantage/disadvantage whereas Councillor Zillionaire gets somewhat forgotten if there is already a clear majority in favour/against.

Things should improve – Once local authorities get the hang of this, as the tech gets better or the members who blame the tech get better at using it, then virtual meetings should flow more easily.

Advice to client teams

Right now there are four obvious things client teams can do to prepare themselves for the new challenge of virtual council meetings:

1. Pre-committee members’ outreach – Where we have direct member contact and this is welcomed, the more we can do to help members by (a) giving them ‘colour’ to the bland planning facts, (b) answering the obvious questions and concerns in advance and (c) giving them real-time answers to issues raised by opponents, then this will obviously aid member understanding.

2. Pre-committee officer help – With more member reliance on officers’ presentations, the more we can help officers prep for these meetings the better. Recent examples amongst DI clients have included specific written briefings on the key issues and how we have addressed them, listing which members have brought up which issues during the application’s lifetime and what we feel the correct answers are, and likewise with objectors’ arguments.

3. Pre-committee members’ briefings – Once the officers’ report is released a week before the actual meeting, it has been good practice for some time to send members a short, well written, factual and non-technical briefing note on the application and any issues surrounding it. Overwhelmingly we have always found these to be welcomed. Perhaps now more than ever, more thought should be given in how these should be presented. The DI rule of thumb has always been to keep these brief and unspun, a maximum of 2-4 sides, no more.

4. In-committee written/audio/video applicant representations – Often the poor old planning consultant gets this gig with varying degrees of client involvement/advice or not. Sometimes they are brilliantly forensic presentations; sometimes sadly they can be epic fails. More than ever now, this piece of ‘committee theatre’ could be crucial. More thought needs to be given. A dash through the arguments already known and oft-repeated on a dark and dingey Zoom recording in the aforementioned planner’s spare bedroom (now office) probably isn’t going to help much.

We are living, as the ancient Chinese proverb says, in interesting times. The DI team has now observed many virtual planning committee meetings across the country over the past month. If you have an interest in a particular local authority, would like to understand the process being followed and the risk and opportunities that exist, please get in touch.