Increase in people watching West Sussex County Council webcasts

A High Court ruling that virtual council meetings cannot continue without a change in the law has seen West Sussex County Council pull out its contingency plan.

When the pandemic hit, the government introduced temporary legislation to allow local authority meetings to be held online, in line with social distancing regulations.

Many hoped this legislation would see out the pandemic and perhaps stay for good.

But it expires on May 7 and a legal challenge from an alliance of local government officers and lawyers was dismissed, with judges deciding a ‘physical presence’ at meetings was needed.

County Hall Chichester. Pic by Steve Robards

In March, the council agreed contingency arrangements for just this outcome and they will come into play after the elections until social distancing regulations are dropped.

A spokesman said: “During these unusual times the ability to move face-to-face meetings onto a virtual platform has allowed for continued democratic visibility and accountability as well as making sure that staff and councillors remain safe and well during the pandemic.

 “As the outcome from the High Court judgement has ruled that meetings now need to be held in person again, we will be implementing our plans to allow the necessary meetings to happen in person in a Covid-secure and safe way for all attending.”

Space will be made at County Hall for a quorum of members – 18 for full council and one-quarter for council and committee meetings – along with a ‘reasonable’ number of press and public as well as council officers.

The councillors who do attend will have been nominated by political group leaders and there will be a proportional number from each group.

All other councillors will be able to participate virtually but will not be allowed to vote.

The council has webcast its larger meetings for a while now – but the need to move over to virtual meetings during the pandemic saw a huge increase in the number of people who watched the goings-on at County Hall.

In 2019/20, a total of 555 people watched the six full council meetings and 218 watched the five cabinet meetings . In 2020/21, that figure rose to 4,294 views and 3,560 views respectively.

 Across the 35 meetings which made up full council, cabinet and the main committees in 2019/20, the total combined number of people who watched – either live or later – was 1,442.

In 2020/21, 16 committees were webcast, including full council, cabinet and the new fire and rescue service scrutiny committee.

Over a total of 78 meetings, 18,044 people watched the webcast.

This included 5,272 watching live and 12,772 logging on later.