Remote council meetings: Harborough District Council

‘Keep calm and carry on’ at first seems at odds with the challenges of lockdown. But there are areas of our work at Harborough where we need to carry on supporting people and prepare for life after lockdown. Making planning decisions is one of those areas, vital to the re-building of the economy. Faced with what is probably the largest planning application that Harborough has dealt with, it was important that our first ever remote faced."

Efficiency and income generation

Harborough District Council remote council meeting

The Planning Committee ensured everyone had the information they needed, facilitated public participation, and met our statutory and constitutional obligations. We also had to meet our responsibilities around social distancing and minimising risks relating to Covid-19 for everyone involved.

Conducting a remote Planning Committee brought with it a raft of challenges. So, we set up a physical ‘hub’ in the Council Chamber to act as our coordination centre. Located here were our Chairman, a ‘producer’, IT support coordination, and a couple of advisors – all appropriately socially distanced. Everyone else would be connecting using MS Teams, with coordination also taking place over the telephone.

Central to the success of the event was testing, testing, testing. We ran two full ‘dummy runs’ of the Committee meeting with Members using dummy content, and this was after initial internal tests. This is new technology for many, so we had challenges with getting people connected and provided training for operating this within the context of a formal Committee meeting.

We also needed to ensure we had a shared etiquette for operating in a virtual environment, so we developed and shared a set of ground rules for operating in a virtual meeting, utilising the facilities provided by MS Teams.

On the night, everything went smoothly. Everyone connected to the meeting. The public could see the proceedings online, and we had approximately 270 unique views. Our rules about ‘muting’ when not speaking meant that everyone could hear everything that was said clearly. And we had good feedback on the quality of the event. Running this meeting online meant that far more people were able to see proceedings than we would have been able to physically host, and from the comfort of their own living room. That must be something we can build upon. There is no doubt that in calmly meeting the challenges of lockdown, we have innovated to enable formal Council decisions to be made whilst maintaining social distancing, and also developed new ways of reaching a larger number of people through the broadcast of our Planning Committee meeting over the internet.

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