County Council Jul 20: virtual meetings revisited

We’re back on Zoom this morning but it’s a new Zoom which allows us to vote and, to enable public presence but not participation, it’s set up as a webinar not as a meeting. This seems to take us a long time to get checked in and I wait for 15 minutes before I’m admitted. At 1029 everyone’s present except one. We start on time which is what we’d do in a real meeting so why should virtual be different? People often don’t show or turn up late at real meetings.

We start with the register, just like school, and it seems to take for ever to get down into the Hs and then my name is called. In true INTJ mode I unmute my speaker well in advance but really I can wait until councillors Hudon and Hunt’s names are called. There’s still one person missing but he’s swiftly found.

We start with the usual boilerplate but today there’s one of note. It relates to the later motion on a possible incinerator in Wisbech. Because it’s really a planning issue members and substitutes of the Planning Committee will be ‘removed’ from the meeting when that motion is debated. And that includes me.

There’s a petition asking that access to the Shire Hall site via the ‘Wessex Place cut through’ be maintained after the Shire Hall site is redeveloped. This makes sense and should be supported. Unfortunately council practice is simply to promise a response.

Next up is the Treasury Management Report which includes items related to the management of the Council’s investments. The Lib Dems make a fuss because of a lack of clarity around environment, social and governance (ESG) issues. That means a vote and we use the new system. Everyone but one seems OK with it, that person votes by voice (!) and the vote is carried 40 (Tories and Labour) for and 16 (Lib Dems plus 1 Indie) with the other Indie abstaining.

The group leaders then have to advise how their groups voted because the constitution requires that to be recorded in the minutes.

Now we have the regular changes to the constitution and there’s a change to the ‘decision review procedure’ . The Lib Dems objected to this at the Constitution & Ethics Committee because it makes it more difficult to challenge decisions. We are therefore going to vote against these changes. Labour agrees. There’s another vote (same councillor can’t manage it). Motion is carried 34 (Tories) to 22 (Lib Dems and Labour with one Indie) with 1 abstention (the other Indie)

We’re rattling through and now it’s motions. We postpone the Wisbech one to the end so first up is a Lib Dem motion on food standards and calls for us to support measures to maintain high food standards, including the establishment of statuary powers, to protect them post Brexit. The Tories argue that the government is good enough and that farmers can be trusted so it looks like they’re going to vote against. The debate degenerates. Smug Tories and self righteous Lib Dems! But there is good news: because of an agreed protocol for Zoom meetings for only two speakers per party the chair ‘encourages’ one of our favorite off the (right wing) scale Tories not to speak. The motion is unsurprising lost 23 (Lib Dem, Labour and both Indies) to 34 (Tories).

The second motion to be taken is a Black Lives Matter (BLM) motion which has been going the rounds of councils in Cambridgeshire (SCDC and Cambridge City supported, East Cambs kicked it into the long grass). It’s moved by the Lib Dems and a couple of minor amendments have been accepted so this should be a case of harmony returns. Just one Tory speech but very much on message. Chair decides we don’t need a vote so it’s carried unanimously. Bravo.

Motion number 3 is from Labour and is about Covid and care homes. There’s a long speech from the Tories setting themselves up not to support the motion without rubbishing it. Some of the details in it were then challenged and the chair once again upheld the virtual meetings rules by not allowing a ‘point of personal explanation’ from the Tory speaker. Motion lost, again it’s unsurprising, 22 (lib Dems and Labour and both Indies) to 33 (some councillors must have gone home).

We quickly do written questions, there are three, all from the Lib Dems, about nurseries, infant malnutrition and school non-attendance fines, before going to the Wisbech motion.

I’m now thrown out because I’m a sub on the Planning Committee so it’s a good time for a coffee as well. I’ll return to watch from the gallery.

It starts and it’s clearly expected to be very political because the mover requests, and gets the appropriate support for, a recorded vote. Lib Dems express concerns because of the planning dimension but empathise with the core sentiment of the motion. Only two other speakers and the debate is a bit of a damp squib. Because there’s a recorded vote we go through the roll call again and it’s quite unanimous. There’s one abstention: a principled Labour councillor who also took a contrary position on the Waterbeach incinerator. The motion is carried! I note in the public broadcast of the meeting the individual councillors go full screen as they call out their votes.

That’s it and all though by 1300. These Zoom meetings do seem to go more quickly than the real ones despite the occasional technology hiccough. Time for lunch.

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