In presenting the report the Assistant to the Chief Executive explained that following the expiry of the powers granted by Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, from 7 May the council had reverted to face-to-face meetings for Members, supported by Democratic Services Officers in the room. The report considered the impact of the decision not to extend the facility of virtual meetings for councils and to recommend to Cabinet/Council, interim measures to enable the council to fulfil their statutory obligations in respect of council meetings whilst maintaining social distancing and COVID-19 safety measures at all times.
The Assistant to the Chief Executive informed Members of the increase in the number of Covid cases in Norfolk and the difficulties to allow all officers back in the meeting room. The advice therefore was to have as few officers as possible in the meeting room to reduce the risk of infection. Officers presenting reports would join the meeting via Zoom.
Councillor Mrs Spikings commented on the efforts of officers undertaken to allow meetings to take place, but added that the sound quality in the Assembly Room was poor and in some cases inaudible and asked if any changes could be made to improve the sound quality.
Councillor Hudson concurred with the comments made by Councillor Spikings.
Councillor Nash explained that he was using headphones via Bluetooth which could be used for all microphones.
With regard to the comments made regarding the use of headphones, Councillor Morley added that he had observed Councillor Nash and that headphones and a mask was too onerous and asked if IT could come up with a better system with the use of loudspeakers. In conclusion, Councillor Morley commented that he was against the recommendations and it was far better for physical presence of officers in the meeting room.
Councillor Devereux commented that the compromise should be made as effective as possible for the decision making process.
Councillor Kirk added that he favoured hybrid meetings as in the meeting room he found it difficult to hear and that he was in favour of the use of headphones.
Councillor Rose made reference to internet difficulties when zoom meetings took place.
Councillor Tyler commented that he had taken the advice of Councillor Nash and had invested in a set of earphones.
Under Standing Order 34, Councillor de Whalley commented that he found it difficult to hear in the Assembly Room and commented he had discussed earphones with Councillor Nash. Councillor de Whalley asked if there was a possibility that sound engineers could be contacted to improve the sound quality.
Under Standing Order 34, Councillor Joyce addressed the Panel and commented that better sound quality was required but emphasised the importance of reducing the risk and protecting everyone against Covid.
In response to the comments made, the Chief Executive provided an overview of the increase in the number of Covid cases both in West Norfolk and Norfolk and highlighted the importance of limiting the number of people in the meeting room. It was explained that the interim arrangements would be reviewed in September 2021. The Chief Executive undertook to discuss the use of headphones with IT. Members were advised that IT had tested the sound quality that morning and improvements had been made. The council was looking at investment into both better visual and audio equipment. A trial was planned to take place on 2 August 2021 and would remain in situ until the tender exercise was conducted.
The Chair explained that in a previous meeting he had experienced difficulty in hearing an officer presentation via zoom and commented that at tonight’s meeting it was difficult to hear those present in the meeting room. The Chair commented that at the beginning of the meeting two IT officers had been present and added that perhaps there could be an IT presence for the duration of meetings.
In conclusion, Councillor Mrs Spikings stated that the Planning Committee was a regulatory body which made decisions and the use of headphones be explored prior to the next meeting. In response, the Chief Executive advised that for the next Planning Committee the trial equipment would be in place and those joining the meeting via zoom should use a headset.
RESOLVED: That the Corporate Performance Panel supported the recommendations to Cabinet and Council as set out below, subject to special consideration be given to the Planning Committee in relation to the comments made above by Councillor Mrs Spikings:
1) That Cabinet agree with the recommendations for the interim arrangements for council meetings.
2) It is recommended that Council and Scrutiny Panel meetings continue to meet at their current start times.
3) Officers will attend meetings via Zoom to limit the number of people in the room at one time.
4) Members attending under Standing Order 34 may do so via Zoom or in person.
5) That a further review of council meetings is conducted at the end of September 2021, when the impact of the relaxing of national covid measures are more widely known.