‘Cancellation of local democracy’: Havering councillors call for re-introduction of meetings during Covid-19 crisis

Havering Town Hall. Picture: Ken Mears

Havering Town Hall. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Opposition councillors in Havering have called for the return of some council meetings amidst accusations of a “cancellation of local democracy” during the coronavirus outbreak.

All planned meetings have been cancelled since March 16, one week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced lockdown measures.

The only exception was a virtual meeting of the council’s licensing sub-committee last month.

Labour group leader Keith Darvill called for a re-introduction of overview and scrutiny meetings onto the agenda.

He told the Recorder: “A worrying casualty of Covid-19 is the cancellation of local democracy and the important function of overview and scrutiny which allows those councillors not in the cabinet to hold the executive to account and ‘ask the difficult questions’.

“My strong view is that the Conservative-led council should reignite democracy in Havering by engaging with the opposition parties to facilitate the early introduction of a scrutiny committee focused on crisis-related issues.”

The former Upminster MP said his group has called for cross party discussions to bring in virtual overview and scrutiny meetings.

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He revealed that opposition groups get just two questions each in a weekly virtual briefing, held in private, answered by chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert on Covid-19 related issues.

A virtual meeting of the planning committee was scheduled for Thursday, May 14 but Cllr David Durant, of the Independent Residents’ Group, wants to see these meetings take place in person at Havering Town Hall “in the interests of transparency”.

He added: “Whilst certain executive decisions can and are made on an emergency basis, with group leader involvement, I cannot agree with cancelling the annual council meeting, which is tantamount to cancelling democracy in Havering.”

The Conservative council leader, Cllr Damian White, said all group leaders had agreed to suspend council meetings until the end of May.

He said: “Our overriding responsibility is to ensure the continued delivery of key public services whilst following government guidelines ensuring that members, staff and the public remain safe.

“Members have received weekly briefings on the actions the council is taking in response to the pandemic and I have met weekly with other group leaders to agree a way forward with recommencing council meetings.

“Discussions are ongoing to conduct further council meetings from June onwards, details of which will be made available in due course subject to any changes with the lockdown arrangements.”