Council TV? Push for livestream meetings and online debate to improve democracy in South Tyneside

Proposals to explore the live streaming and recording of more council meetings in South Tyneside have been backed by borough councillors.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, South Tyneside Council moved more public council meetings online including its cabinet meetings, scrutiny committees and Community Area Forums.

For a number of months, meetings were held digitally via video conferencing software and proceedings were broadcast live on YouTube.

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When national government regulations which allowed digital council meetings expired in May, 2021, the council reverted back to recording and live streaming its in-person full council meetings, where all 54 elected councillors are called.

South Shields Town Hall.

At a recent meeting of full council on June 30, 2022, opposition councillors launched calls for town hall bosses to explore the costs and practicalities of live streaming or recording and publishing all committee meetings.

This included setting up a cross-party working group or asking the council’s Constitution Committee to explore this and to bring an ‘options’ report back to full council for decision in November, 2022.

Independent councillor John Robertson, launching the motion, said there was a desire from members of the public to watch council meetings but that many could not attend due to childcare or work responsibilities.

Cllr Robertson added that live streaming or recording more meetings would increase openness and transparency, reflecting previous commitments made by the council’s Labour leadership.

Independent councillor Glenn Thompson also claimed public accessibility and engagement with local authority activities “just isn’t healthy” and said this was reflected in areas such as public attendance at council meetings and the “dismal turnout for local elections”.

Councillor David Francis, Green Group leader, later proposed an amendment to the motion.

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This included extending the timeframe for a decision on options for live streaming or recording meetings to the May 2023 annual borough council meeting.

The Green Group amendment also asked the council’s leader and chief executive to write to central government to call for legislation to be introduced to allow councils the flexibility to offer virtual and remote meetings.

Cllr Francis told full council that more remote meetings would help improve public engagement and reduce transport emissions but noted filming in-person committee meetings would “have to be a carefully thought out decision” due to the potential costs involved.

After being put to the vote, the Green Party amendment failed to win majority support across the council chamber.

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It was a Labour Group amendment that was eventually passed with a majority vote, which removed reference to timeframes and calls to lobby the government.

The Labour Group motion proposed referring the matter to the council’s Constitution Committee to investigate the options for live streaming or recording and publishing committee meetings and the financial and legal implications involved.

Councillor Joanne Bell, cabinet member for governance, finance and corporate services, said it would be “prescriptive” to include a timeframe and that all findings would be reported back to a future full council meeting.

Cllr Bell added: “This council does recognise that the benefit of increased public engagement, better understanding of how the council works and improved transparency can only be beneficial to the council’s reputation and its credibility.”

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Labour councillor Ann Best, who was recently appointed as a member champion for democracy in South Tyneside, added work was already under way to improve democratic engagement in the borough.

This included methods to highlight existing opportunities to engage in democracy but also public engagement around council committee meetings, with council officers looking at the viability and resource implications.

Cllr Best said she intended to bring more information about proposals, and how the public and councillors can give feedback, to council meetings in future.

After being put to the vote, the motion with the Labour Group amendment was passed with 36 votes in favour, five votes against and one abstention.

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The matter will now be referred to the council’s Constitution Committee.