County Councillor for Gartree – June 2020
It seems very odd to say that I’m much busier now than before the lockdown, but it’s very definitely the case.
In my last article in April, I reported how I had presented on 24 March, a panel report to the Cabinet from home, via Skype for Business. I have not been to County Hall in Glenfield since mid March. The vast majority of the 3,000 staff are also working from home. For the last six Tuesdays, all 55 members have been invited to attend a two hour update briefing on Skype from all the service directors, with an opportunity to ask questions and receive answers. The first meeting attracted just over half, and some struggled with the technology, but the last few have had over 50 members on the Skype call. The service directors who give their weekly updates include Adults and Communities, Children and Families, Environment and Transport, Corporate Resources including Finance, and the Chief Executives, which includes legal services, trading standards and the regulatory services. The last two briefings have included updates from a director leading the Recovery plan as the council moves back towards a more normal way of working. In addition to these weekly update briefings, I have also been virtually attending Cabinet briefings and meetings, Scrutiny briefings and meetings, and a number of panel meetings. We’re also all being given virtual training to use Microsoft Teams as Skype for Business is being phased out. Finally, in this section about county council meetings, we have gone paper-free; no longer a week before the relevant meeting is there a thud as the agenda and papers fall through my letter box. The officers who normally photocopy all the paperwork and send it to us in the mail are also working from home, so we’ve had to compromise. The jury is out about whether it works with the way we members work, but I’m certainly giving it a go.
In my role as county councillor I always try to be available for evening parish council meetings in the Gartree division, where I am invited and sent a copy of the agenda. I am usually asked to give an update on county council work in the relevant parish council area. With the number of parishes across the Gartree division, this usually works out at about one per week, but there are occasions where more than one is held on the same evening, or I’m listening in, or speaking, at a HDC planning committee meeting. Since late March all of these meetings have been held virtually, mainly using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype.
Both Kibworth parish councils use Zoom. As I said in April, Kibworth Harcourt just use the free version so the meetings are restricted to 40 minutes. So far we have managed to hold three monthly meetings and all completed within 40 minutes, although it was a tight fit in June. We have managed to get all six councillors online and listening, although not always have they been seen; having a camera on your laptop is an important factor to consider!
Kibworth Beauchamp Parish Council are also responsible for the Joint Recreation and Neighbourhood Plan meetings so they opted to pay the £100 odd a year for the Zoom Pro version; this just removes the 40 minute limit. I read that the Zoom company profits have rocketed by 160%!
I said at the beginning of this article that I’ve been busier. On a couple of days recently I started a Skype county council meeting at 9am, and then had back to back meetings finishing at 6.30pm with a half hour for a sandwich midday. One would have gone on until 9pm, but the Microsoft Teams HDC planning committee meeting, which I wanted to observe for a sports facility application, had a technical problem so observers couldn’t attend; it is being re-run on 16 June. On that day I managed a quick walk around my front drive, and on my return to the front door
realised these virtual meetings from home meant I was being saved the usual 45 minute, stress filled journey each way to and from County Hall!
And if you think I just hang up my laptop and stop zooming at the weekend, you would be wrong. My youngest son invites all the family from across England to join in a Pictionary drawing type Jackbox game for a couple of hours using mobile phone and laptop; my eight year old granddaughter loves it and normally wins!
I said in April that there can be no going back to what went before. The new norm, as it is being called, will be different, and I’m curious and a bit apprehensive about how it will turn out. Are you?