Causeway Coast and Glens Council saved £40,000 in members’ travel for the year 2020/2021 by holding remote/hybrid meetings.
Sinn Fein Councillor Kathleen McGurk described the figure as ‘astonishing’ during January’s full council meeting when the Department for Communities Call for Evidence on Northern Ireland Councils – Remote/Hybrid Meetings was discussed.
The Department for Communities (DfC) is gathering evidence and seeking views on the use of the current arrangements which have provided provision for district councils in Northern Ireland to hold meetings remotely or in a hybrid format during the coronavirus pandemic. Pre-pandemic there was no express provision for remote meetings for district councils.
Addressing the chamber Councillor McGurk, who has always spoken in favour of remote meetings and the flexibility they offer councillors who work or have young families, said: “It was agreed on the evening that we would take a consultation back to the DfC remote/hybrid meetings consultation. I believe a draft has been forwarded and I’m quite happy that we adopt that draft as a response to the consultation.
“I noted in the content of the draft that the Democratic Services had estimated a saving of approximately £40,000 in members travel for the year 2020/2021 and I think that’s astonishing and it certainly gives us some quantitative evidence to what I have been harping on about much to others dismay, that we really should be looking at remote or hybrid meetings as a way forward for quite a few of our meetings. I would like to propose that we adopt the draft that was circulated to members.”
PUP Councillor Russell Watton described the semi empty chamber as being in ‘ Old Trafford because there’s nobody going to that at the minute either’.
He described the situation as ‘dire’ adding: “Some councillors haven’t been in here for two years and then you have some complaining about bad connections, they could be in here no bother.
“It’s less of a council when you are sitting with 13 or 14 people. I just can’t see it as a way forward, it’s better being in here, you can see what’s going on and you can tell what people think. It’s dire, I would rather have 40 sitting here as 14.”
Before taking the vote the Mayor, Councillor Richard Holmes said: “Councillor Watton I share your sentiments.”
The proposal to adopt the draft consultation passed with 22 votes for and 12 against.
Speaking after the council meeting, Councillor McGurk said: “I know the will is there with the majority of members, however there are a few dissenting voices which tend to overshadow other opinions sometimes.
“I do recognise there are some meetings that arguably should be done as physical only such as full council meetings where the full council body meets.
“Having some physical meetings would counteract some of the negative impacts of remote meetings such as councillor relations, etc, but in general remote and hybrid meetings are too powerful a tool now to ignore and go back to the old ways of doing things just for the sake of it.
“The benefits of remote meetings are immense and wide ranging for example cost savings to the public purse.
“Democratic Services worked out that a saving of £40,000 was made on members travelling expenses alone in 20/21. This is before we take account of the cost of staff being given time in lieu to attend meetings where they may have had to wait around all night for their item to come up.
“I also believe remote/hybrid meetings have made council business much more accessible to the public and it allows council members and staff to balance their work and personal lives around council duties much more effectively.
“I know from my perspective I have a full time job in construction, and a young family with three children – having to travel to multiple meetings in Coleraine and elsewhere wastes so much of my time and doesn’t allow me to use that time to spend with my children, etc.
“At the moment I am still able to come back from work, have dinner as a family, help my husband get the kids ready for bed and even get the younger ones down before a 7pm meeting starts.
“A physical meeting would mean me travelling straight to Coleraine after work and not having time to stop in and participate and help with our family evenings.
“I would be hopeful that longer term this would encourage people from non-traditional sectors of society to come forward into politics and have a greater representation of vulnerable/minority groups.”