After saving more than £50,000 in travel expenses and seeing an increase in numbers of people watching online, the executive at North Yorkshire County Council has agreed to not return to having all meetings in person.
The authority was among the country’s first to announce it would suspend the traditional democratic process of face-to-face meetings with elected members due to Covid-19 last March.
Now its executive has recommended to a full meeting of the council next month that its in-person meetings which shape key services ranging from education to road maintenance should be limited to only those that committee chairs believe are necessary.
While most councillors believe the quality of debate is stifled due to the nature of online meetings, in practice the recommendation is likely to mean all but most full authority, planning and scrutiny of health committee meetings will continue to be held virtually.
Since March 2020 almost every major decision on many public services for the county’s 605,000 residents have been made by its chief executive officer, Richard Flinton, who has used emergency powers granted under the pandemic.
The overwhelming majority of the council’s committees have been held online and broadcast on YouTube, leading to a cut in mileage claimed by councillors of 131,338 miles, a saving in travel claims of £55,221, an estimated saving of 668 working days in travel time and 36.774 tonnes less carbon dioxide emissions a year.
The broadcasting of its meetings, which are held during the normal working week, has led to a sharp upturn in the number of people watching proceedings.
The authority’s executive member for education Councillor Patrick Mulligan said the pandemic had proved “an absolute eye-opener” in terms of the advantages the council could reap from remote working.
The meeting heard while the government was encouraging people to return to workplaces, executive members warned against losing the advantages that remote meetings have brought in “a rush back to the office by some quarters”.
Councillor Janet Sanderson, executive member for children’s services, added: “Setting Covid aside, going back to anything other than virtual meetings in a blend would be a retrograde step.”
Executive members were also told the authority had a responsibility to protect its staff, but also its elected members, many of whom are aged above or close to traditional retirement age.
The council’s leader, Councillor Carl Les, said online meetings had enabled him to be much more productive, attending up to six meetings in a day instead of about two in-person.
He said: “I think it’s right to continue to be cautious. The emergency powers have served us well and I would like to think we can continue with that, but also as we start to come out of the pandemic, if we are coming out of the pandemic, to give a bigger role to chairs of committees to decide when meetings should be held in person.”