A COUNCILLOR forced to isolate due to contracting Covid has called the government’s failure to reintroduce virtual council meetings ‘frankly bizarre’ - after his attendance wasn’t officially counted at a recent meeting.
Coun James Higginbottom said council officials were understanding of circumstances surrounding his remote attendance from home at Friday’s South Area Council meeting.
But with government guidance to ‘work from home where you can’ amid a spike in cases due to the new Omicron variant of coronavirus, Coun Higginbottom said not reinstating virtual meetings is completely at odds with that advice.
Emergency legislation was passed in April last year, which allowed local authorities to lawfully conduct meetings online with members in remote attendance.
It meant that legally-binding decisions could be made despite councillors not being present in the same setting.
That expired this May, despite calls for the regulations to be extended as councils - including Barnsley - carried out searches for suitable venues which were large enough to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Before then, the government wrote to all authorities saying it was ‘not possible’ to introduce further emergency regulations due to ‘severe pressure’ on its capability to pass new legislation.
Several arguments were made for public attendance being greater at virtual meetings, with a council report stating 1,050 views had been recorded across meetings in the first three months of the new arrangements - ‘significantly greater’ than interest pre-lockdown.
Barnsley Council was one of the first in the country to commence live-streaming for public meetings so residents could watch from home, but technological constraints - and fears over intrusive pornographic material - meant full council meetings weren’t able to go ahead for several months.
At Friday’s meeting, Wombwell Coun Higginbottom said he and Darfield Coun Pauline Markham were counted as in virtual attendance but not officially present - meaning they couldn’t vote on matters raised.
Coun Higginbottom said: “It is a frankly bizarre situation that I was able to attend this meeting virtually and take part in debate - but was unable to vote, or have my attendance counted.
“The government’s continued failure to reintroduce virtual proceedings for local government, when their official advice is to work from home where you can, quite simply beggars belief.
“It is putting councillors and officers at risk of infection.
“I would call on Michael Gove to do the right thing and bring back virtual proceedings as a matter of urgency.”