By Chris Baraniuk
Technology of Business reporter

Image source, Getty Images

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Jackie Weaver: perhaps the only star to emerge from a council meeting

“Jackie Weaver, you have no authority here!” This immortal line, a gift to a pandemic-weary world, would probably never have been uttered had lockdown not forced local councils to meet virtually.

But with lockdowns – hopefully – a thing of the past, local councils in England have been wrestling with the question of whether they should continue to live stream their sessions.

Despite the fact that a return to in-person meetings has been required by law since 7 May last year, Nottinghamshire County Council last month voted to spend £437,341 on a scheme to revolutionise its virtual meeting systems and make it easier for people to join in online as well as in-person.

The council has not made public a detailed breakdown of exactly how the money would be spent but local media reports suggest it would cover wall-mounted displays and person-tracking cameras in meeting rooms.

The BBC understands new microphones, sockets for councillors to plug in their laptops and asbestos removal to allow for the installation of new hardware will also be included.

Nottinghamshire County Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Although the plan was voted through, five councillors either abstained or voted against it. The episode encapsulates the question hanging over all English councils right now. Live streaming arguably improves public engagement in local democracy – but can it carry on and, if so, at what cost?

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WATCH: “Jackie Weaver, you have no authority here!”

Jackie Weaver, star of the infamous Handforth parish council Zoom meeting that descended into chaos and became a viral hit last year, said in January that online council meetings ought to continue.

“People have a right to see what we do as councillors,” says Cllr Keith Girling at Nottinghamshire County Council, who supports its high-tech upgrade plan.

His colleague on the council, Cllr Kate Foale, who abstained, says online meetings have been a “brilliant” means of involving the public in decision-making but she balks at the proposed sum of more than £400,000.

“To justify spending that kind of money, it didn’t feel right,” she says.

Cllr Girling argues the new tech will facilitate the smooth running of multiple meetings, not just those in the main council chamber.

Proponents of hybrid gatherings, in which some people are present in a room while others join remotely via the internet, often point out that additional technical support is sometimes needed in order to broadcast the contributions of each person clearly and audibly to all attendees.

Image source, Kate Foale

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Councillor Kate Foale says its hard to justify spending on streaming technology

In contrast, when everyone logs in individually via a system such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, it can be easier to show clearly the current speaker in full view.

One authority that has stopped streaming its in-person gatherings is Eastleigh Borough Council in Hampshire. A spokesman tells the BBC that streaming “didn’t work as well” for in-person meetings but says the council will keep this “open for review”.

But elsewhere, Cllr Jonathan Davies of Penrith Town Council is a big fan of keeping the stream alive. He says he makes a point of streaming any public meeting that he attends, via a camera attached to his smartphone.

“I take that, pop it on a tripod on a seat where a member of the public would be sat and stream live,” he explains.

All council meetings across the country should be broadcast digitally, he argues. He even suggests that the BBC could link in to streams via a service such as iPlayer – not least because it would capture plenty of content for news producers. “You would get your Jackie Weaver moments,” he says.

In reality, digital coverage of council meetings currently varies from place to place. Cllr Joanne Laban at Enfield Council says that some gatherings are currently streamed there while others are not.

“It’s a no brainer for me that these meetings should be live streamed,” she says. The council has previously told local media that any meetings can be streamed if there is a request to do so.

Image source, Peter Nutkins Photography

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Louise Third, chair of Speakers’ Corner Trust says streamed meetings make people feel more involved

The charity Speakers’ Corner Trust (SCT) published a report last year about the impact that virtual council meetings have had on engagement in local democracy.

Based on responses from 50 councils that decided to take part, the charity concluded that the results had been largely positive, with heightened participation in debates and greater awareness among the public of what councils were up to.

“People felt, wherever they were, they could have a chance to say something or ask a question,” says SCT chair and interim chief executive Louise Third.

But because of current technological disparities at councils around the country, she notes that having online access to live meetings can depend largely on where you live.

“We would really push for that balance to be able to have all citizens having a voice,” adds Mrs Third. That means the opportunity to attend in-person if you are unable to log in virtually, as well as the provision of online access, to ensure maximum engagement.

Image source, Getty Images

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In rural areas like Suffolk online meetings can save a lot of driving

Few councillors have revelled in cyber-meetings to the extent that Cllr Stephen Burroughes, of Suffolk County Council, has since lockdown. From his home, he attends four or five meetings online every day, often tuning in to two or three simultaneously so that he can keep an eye on small sessions as well as larger ones.

It has meant far less travel for attendees in a largely rural area. “We reduced our carbon footprint by 66%, which was quite staggering,” he says.

He too thinks public engagement is up. “My email inbox has probably doubled,” and he argues that the government should have allowed English councils to continue meeting virtually.

Unlike many European countries, local authorities in the UK have relatively little power and funding, yet are tasked with representing large numbers of people, notes Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh university.

Live streaming of sessions is more established elsewhere in Europe. He says that embracing technology – so long as costs are reasonable – could help communities in England and elsewhere in the UK tackle the many issues they face in the 21st Century.

“If we believe that local democracy needs to be revitalised and invested in, then to me digital infrastructure will be part of it.”