closeup photo of computer keyboard
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The government’s recent announcement that councils will be forced to go back to meeting in-person ignores all the progress we have seen in the last year with online meetings, and is a real blow to opening up local democracy.

As well as displaying a tired and old-fashioned approach, it shows a contempt for local government. It was not their priority for legislation, though the consequences for local democracy are huge.

And the move away from online and hybrid meetings goes against our values as co-operators, that we should devolve power and resources down to the local level, for communities to decide, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. A decision to allow councils to have online meetings as an option would allow for local discussions about how they could be used, and when would be most appropriate.

It is the same conversation we are promoting within our own party. There will always be times when members want to get together over tea and biscuits, but there are many activities, including our activism, that can be done just as well online, and have the added benefit of being more accessible. Feedback from our members showed an overwhelmingly positive experience with our online events over the last year, and that the format enabled members with disabilities, responsibilities, a heavy meeting schedule, such as activists or elected representatives, and those who are geographically spread out, to engage in a way they couldn’t before.

Many councils have also seen an increase in participation both by Councillors and the public. Particularly in rural counties, the absence of a four-hour round trip to County Hall has meant a better use of representatives’ time, and made it easier for those with other responsibilities such as work and care.

Our councils must be representative of the communities they serve – it is something we believe in strongly in the Co-op Party. We will shortly be relaunching our Co-operative Candidate Development Programme for next year, to assist our amazing members to get elected, but we need the institutions of government to catch up too. This decision must be reviewed with a sense of urgency by the government, to make sure our democratic institutions are more accessible.