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The council will not hold public meetings, like this one in February 2019, for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

The council will not hold public meetings, like this one in February 2019, for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

Council votes itself new powers to continue making decisions in the days of coronavirus

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the council last week voted in emergency powers to enable it to continue making important decisions. Public meetings have been cancelled until further notice. Nick Terdre reports.

The meeting of Hastings Borough Council’s full council on Wednesday 18 March proved to be its last meeting in public until the the coronavirus infection, Covid-19, has been overcome. HBC subsequently announced that all public meetings have been cancelled until further notice.

This is to “ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents, councillors and officers,” it said.

The moves raises the question of how decisions are to be made, as the law requires them to be taken at public meetings, and how the public’s right to attend meetings,  ask questions and – as at planning committee meetings – address the members can be maintained, also a legal requirement.

A partial answer is given in the statement, which says that, “Non essential decisions will have to wait and we will continue to keep residents updated where and when urgent decisions have to be made.”

Emergency powers

The full council meeting, which was attended by 22 of the 32 councillors, also voted in emergency powers, overriding parts of the council’s constitution, to enable essential decisions to be made in the absence of public meetings.

The coronavirus bill which is currently before Parliament also contains provisions to facilitate council functioning at this time, including lifting the ban on virtual meetings.

Against a background of fast-moving events, the decision to seek emergency powers was taken too late to allow the usual briefing paper for the full council meeting to be prepared. Instead a motion was presented by Cllr Judy Rogers of the ruling Labour group and seconded by Cllr Rob Lee of the minority Conservative group – an indication of the cross-party consensus over this issue.

Under the emergency powers, authority is delegated to the council’s managing director to take urgent or emergency decisions in consultation with a minimum of four members of Cabinet, one of whom must be an opposition councillor and another the council leader or deputy leader.

Managing director

And who is the council’s managing director? This is a newly established post to which Jane Hartnell, previously director of Corporate Services and Governance, has been appointed.

Addressing the meeting, Hartnell stressed that decisions would be delayed whenever possible; she did not want to be using the new powers unless absolutely necessary. Government guidance was awaited on how councils might continue operating democratically under current circumstances, she said.

It could also usefully advise on how public participation can be secured. This was a question raised by independent councillor Dany Louise, who asked what provision there would be for the public to be able to view and ask questions.

Hartnell was recommended for the new role by the employment committee after they interviewed both her and Simon Hubbard, holder of the other director’s post, for Operational Services.

The appointment of a managing director is accompanied by the ‘deletion’ of the unsuccessful director’s post. This means that Hubbard loses his job and is expected to leave the council in early April, at the end of the administrative year.

At the same time an assistant director’s post and two senior PA positions are also being abolished. This rearrangement of the council’s top management is presented in the budget as an efficiency measure providing a saving of £260,000 in 2020/21. However that does not take into account any increase in Hartnell’s salary, which has yet to be agreed.

Challenges

“My first challenge will be to steer the council and the town through the evolving impact of COVID-19,” the managing director said. “I want to assure everyone that we are doing all we can to plan for and manage the impact of this terrible virus.

“Council staff have already risen magnificently to this challenge, putting the needs of local people first, all the while worrying about their own families and friends. We are in close communication with other councils, our partners and the government.

“We have set up a response team to lead on this work and coordinate with local agencies. We will do everything we can to protect our most vital services and our most vulnerable people.”

Her appointment was welcomed by the new council leader, Cllr Kim Forward, who was elected to the post at the full council meeting following Cllr Peter Chowney’s decision to step down. The new deputy leader, who will have to be officially elected under the crisis procedures, will be Cllr Colin Fitzgerald.

 

See the council’s webpage on how it is responding to Covid-19.

Posted 18:14 Wednesday, Mar 25, 2020 In: Covid-19

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Keith Piggott

    I suggest the public, our politicians, and local police, all take time to hear former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Lord Sumption’s views on ‘assumed emergency powers’ (BBC Radio 4, “World at One”: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gt59). The segment starts at the 17 minute point and runs to 24 minutes. Well worth the effort of listening to. KP

    Comment by Keith Piggott — Monday, Mar 30, 2020 @ 18:09

  2. Chandra Masoliver

    Thanks for the info Nick

    Comment by Chandra Masoliver — Thursday, Mar 26, 2020 @ 00:41

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