With key stakeholders self-isolating and following Government guidance, Waltham Forest LBC were challenged to continue with committee meetings during the COVID-19 emergency so that decisions can be taken democratically. We also had to ensure we followed Government guidance on maintaining social distancing and meet the existing legal requirements at the time to have councillors physically present in the meeting venue.
Despite these unprecedented times, as a council we were prepared to deliberate and make decisions about the future of the borough, enable democratic participation from applicants and residents, maintain momentum on major developments for new housing and social infrastructure in Waltham Forest and observe social distancing during the COVID-19 emergency.
The decision was taken to pilot our monthly Planning Committee meeting as a virtual meeting, using Microsoft Teams. This collaboration software is already used within the council and a link can be sent to the public allowing anyone to join the meeting just using a computer or smartphone.
What did we do?
We arranged a committee room large enough to allow social distancing to take place. Sufficient councillors were present in the room to meet the quorum requirement and only these councillors voted (meeting the legal requirements at that time).
Council planning officers, applicants, objectors and observers joined the meeting as guests using Microsoft Teams, and to avoid the common gripe with conference calls where people speak over each other, microphones were controlled centrally by a council officer so only one person spoke at once. Presentations were given using the share screen option which was also projected on a screen in the committee room for councillors to see.
We used Office 365 Teams to facilitate the meeting combined with Logitech room solution for teams. The setup included the following Logitech hardware; the TAP for simple connectivity, the Rally Camera to give ultra HD imaging, a single Rally speaker and microphone to give us clear audio in the room so the participants in the room could maintain social distancing as required and still be heard.
What were the benefits?
First and foremost, we were able to protect all participants by following social distancing rules, enabling delivery of democracy using 21st century technology and ensuring long term economic resilience continues post COVID-19.
What did we learn?
The system worked well with up to 50 people at one time, and we know we could have many more joining in this way. Going forward we will likely use this approach for future meetings during COVID-19 emergency, including councillors joining the meeting virtually when the new Government regulations allow this to take effect. We are also looking at how we can use this to deliver our wider engagement programme activity with residents.
It is possible to have an interactive democratic meeting with good participation using the latest collaboration software and audio-visual equipment. The expected new government regulations will make this even easier. It is straightforward to send out a web link and for the public to join. This could increase the amount of democratic participation and may well be good for those with accessibility issues who would have struggled to get to a physical location previously.
Martin Esom is chief executive of Waltham Forest LBC