Parish councils react to High Court decision that councils must meet in person

Thriplow Village Hall can accommodate parish council meetings with social distancing in place

Thriplow Village Hall can accommodate parish council meetings with social distancing in place - Credit: Google Street View

Parish councillors are left to make difficult decisions following a High Court ruling that councils must meet in person from May 7.

While meetings have been taking place virtually for the past 12 months, last week the High Court said that meetings should take place in person as COVID-19 restrictions ease, while maintaining social distancing.

Members of some parish councils fear this will mean they are no longer able to hold meetings safely.

Judy Damant, clerk of Meldreth Parish Council, said: "Meldreth are lucky that they will be able to hold their meetings in the large room of the village hall until the end of June. Orwell have also been able to do this.

"However, if social distancing is not lifted by the end of June then both parishes may have difficulty in holding any future meetings, as venues will be difficult to find.

"I think the situation, for many parish councils, will be almost impossible to carry out. They may have to make the decision of not having meetings as they cannot guarantee safety.

"I personally do not think it right that as a clerk I am having to summon councillors to a meeting which I cannot guarantee is safe, especially for those councillors who have yet to be vaccinated so the advice would be to send in their apologies - which is unfair as they may have something they wish to say or vote on.

"This is also the case for councillors who have been shielding. The government are saying to remain working from home if you are able to, but then I am summoning them to a meeting because the government says I have to."

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Meanwhile Great and Little Chishill Parish Council will not have an issue with space for their usual meetings, but have had to think creatively for their larger annual meeting.

Sarah Scott, clerk of Great and Little Chishill Parish Council

Sarah Scott, clerk of Great and Little Chishill Parish Council - Credit: Supplied

Clerk Sarah Scott said: "From our perspective our online meetings worked really well. Initially we had more members of the public joining us for our meetings but this has now curtailed.

"Before COVID we held our meetings in the village hall. We sometimes had a couple of members of the public join us unless there was a hot topic, then we would be prepared for more people coming. The exception being the annual meeting of the parish, which we usually expect 50+ people to attend (excluding the parish council and county and district councillors). 

"This year this causes an issue in that our next meeting is the annual meeting of the parish and we certainly cannot let everyone come.

"So the parish council will meet in person but we still want to offer an online option too, so a kind of hybrid meeting. We have asked for all reports to be sent to us in good time before the meeting and have given the correspondents the option to join online to present themselves or to ask the parish council to present for them.

The village hall where Great and Little Chishill Parish Council holds their meetings

The village hall where Great and Little Chishill Parish Council holds their meetings - Credit: Supplied

"We are lucky that we have a large village hall so spacing will not be an issue. We will just have to factor in more time at the end to wipe down the tables and chairs."

Thriplow and Heathfield parish councillor David Easthope is looking forward to a return to how things were done in pre-COVID times. He said: "We meet bi-monthly and our next meeting was due on Monday, May 10.

"We have delayed our next meeting until May 24, when we will be able to meet in the village hall.

"We usually meet in the meeting room but have booked the main hall instead, which is large enough to enable us to safely observe any social distancing rules that may be in place at that time.

"Our annual parish meeting, which is normally held towards the end of March and is usually well-attended by residents, has been postponed until June 24, by which time we hope that COVID-19 restrictions will have been lifted.

"We are fortunate that Thriplow village hall has a large main hall with an adjacent meeting room, which can also be opened up to become part of the main hall if an even larger space is needed.

"Members of the public have been able to join in with our Zoom meetings. There was one occasion when, over an hour into the meeting, the host announced that there were some 20 members of the public requesting admission.

"None of the names were recognised by councillors, it was agreed that these requests were not genuine and access was denied.  

"The 'new normal' Zoom meetings were not as satisfactory as face-to-face meetings and we look forward to returning to the 'old normal' again."

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