Council will extend live-streaming of meetings post lockdown

Streaming and recording of council meetings during pandemic was 'a shot in the arm for local democracy'

Screen grab of Eastleigh Local Area Committee meeting live-streamed 8 June 2021

Eastleigh Borough council have confirmed they will continue to live-stream and upload video recordings of their meetings after national lockdown restrictions are lifted  – currently scheduled for July 19.

At the outbreak of the pandemic in April 2020, the Government passed emergency legislation to enable local authorities to conduct meetings virtually – using video conferencing software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

But in May, a high court ruling meant that councils had to return to live in-person meetings. Despite the return to the traditional format EBC have continued to live-stream their meetings and upload the recordings to the Council’s Youtube account, so they can be accessed at any time.

One of the recordings of the Southampton Airport Runway planning meeting has had over 350 views from interested parties who previously would have been unable watch the proceedings.

Virtual meetings ‘positive effect’ on local democracy

While the government considers responses to its recent consultation on the experiences of local authorities and the public of remote council meetings, The Speakers Croner Trust (SCT) a charity that promotes free speech and public debate, has published the results of its own survey of councils and stakeholders which they say shows that virtual meetings held during lockdown have had a ‘positive effect on local democracy’.

The key research findings are that:

  • Nine in ten councils perceived enhancements to local democracy as a direct result of online public meetings with available recordings (92%), councillors meeting online (90%) and new opportunities to communicate and interact online (88%). The majority of councils (64%) think Covid-19 has had a net positive impact on local democracy.
  • Also, a majority of of local democracy reporters (56%) feel the impact of restrictions has enhanced democratic participation, although they are less positive than councils, citing concerns around meeting-technology failures, a lack of or slow response from officers to requests for information, and the exclusion of those with no access to the internet.
  • 74% of councils report democratic enhancements in a higher public attendance due to meetings being held online, and citizens and communities wanting to engage more (72%).
  • The main area of concern for councils (86% of those surveyed) is a compromise to democracy with some citizens being disadvantaged by not having online access.

‘There must be no going back’

In a press release the Chair of Speakers’ Corner Trust, Louise Third MBE said that contrary to her expectations the pandemic had provided a ‘shot in the arm for local democracy’ adding:

 “I was convinced that the national lockdown in March 2020 would deal another hammer blow to local democratic engagement.

Decades of disenchantment with politicians have left council chambers empty and many people disinterested and disengaged.

This piece of research shows that some good has come out of the changes imposed on local councils by the pandemic. Now they must be allowed to continue to adapt and develop different ways to bring more people into decision-making. There must be no going back.”

What price democracy?

In 2012 Eastleigh’s Leader Cllr Keith House rejected the idea of web casting Eastleigh’s meetings and criticised Hampshire County Council’s decision to spend £205,000 on a state-of-the-art video system as a waste of ‘tax-payers money’ and a ‘Conservative vanity project’ but a council spokesperson has told Eastleigh News that the proliferation of free -to-use streaming platforms since then, now makes live streaming a low cost option and the council will continue to stream and upload meetings after lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Whatever the outcome of the government’s consultation on remote council meetings, live streaming by Eastleigh Borough Council is at least one lasting, positive outcome of lockdown for local democracy.

Watch EBC committee meetings here