Oxford City Council will aim to restart council meetings online in the coming weeks to ensure councillors can continue to represent their electorate and make decisions about what matters to residents.
All public meetings of Oxford’s elected councillors – including planning, licensing, cabinet, scrutiny, and full council meetings – have been postponed or cancelled over the last month due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although internal meetings have moved online, with officers and councillors using platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, carrying out public meetings that are compliant with national legislation is more challenging.
The online meeting platform needs to be:
- Accessible to members of the press and public
- Able to show presentations and planning documents
- Able to record declarations of interest and councillor votes
- Able for councillors with an interest to temporarily leave a debate
The platform also needs to enable the chairperson or facilitator to easily remove and ban trolls who could disrupt the meeting. An online planning meeting by South Somerset Council was disrupted last month.
Full Council meetings will be a particular challenge to organise online. The City Council has 48 councillors, the meetings are attended by dozens of members of the public, the Oxford Mail and BBC Oxford attend, and members of the public speak.
Over recent weeks, City Council officers and councillors have been discussing the best approach to public meetings going forwards.
The aim is to choose an online meeting platform, carry out tests of the system, and train all councillors over the coming weeks. The first committee meeting – likely to be a planning committee meeting – will take place as soon as possible after that.
The City Council has already changed its Constitution to enable the Head of Planning to make decisions, under delegated powers, on all planning applications. The City Council is currently still receiving a significant number of planning applications.
However, it is hoped the new online meetings means this approach will only be needed over the next few weeks to bridge the gap before the new system is up and running.
“In the coming weeks we aim to restart council meetings to ensure that locally-elected councillors can meet, using a publicly-accessible online platform, to discuss the issues that matter to Oxford’s residents.
“Over the last five weeks City Council officers have moved to holding all meetings online, and – just like families across the city – we have become relative experts at using Zoom and Microsoft Teams. But, holding public council meetings presents a significantly more complicated challenge.
“We need to make sure the online meeting platform we use can be accessed by the press and public, can show presentations and planning documents, enables councillors to declare interests and record votes, allows the chairperson to avoid the online trolling that has blighted attempts by other councils, and meets the national legal requirements for public meetings.
“Officers have been discussing these issues for several weeks and, over the coming month, we intend to choose the system, carry out tests of the system and train all councillors. Our intention is to hold council meetings, including planning committee meetings, as soon as possible.”
Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council