PRESS RELEASE (FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE)
29TH April 2021
PORSTMOUTH CONSERVATIVE GROUP
The Portsmouth Conservative Group strongly objects to illegal attempts made this week by the Liberal Democrat Administration and Senior Civil Servants at Portsmouth City Council to push through an extension of remote working and to holding public online meetings. Hiding behind the distraction of the local elections, the leadership of the council are engaging in ‘fat cat behaviour’ by trying to limit democratic engagement and avoid public scrutiny as they rule from large suburban houses and plush living rooms.
On the Thursday 28th April the High Court ruled that Councils must return to holding face-to-face public meetings in line with statute and must allow the public access to the local government decision making process. The court ruled that being “present” and meeting in a “place” are not metaphorical ideas but a key part of council members and officers fulfilling their duty to the public.
During the pandemic vital departments of the council have been closed and some, such as planning, have fallen months and months behind on their workloads, leaving citizens waiting unreasonable lengths of time for basic decisions. Neighbouring local authorities are already making preparation for council meetings to physically take place with COVID safety measures, including Gosport, who share the same Chief Executive Officer as Portsmouth, and Fareham. It is time to get the City Council back to work for the city.
Senior civil servants have also sought to change the constitution and to increase delegated powers, as well as reduce the number of councillors present at meetings. This represents an unacceptable power grab away from the elected members. Some of the senior officers of the council are in receipt of 6 figure salaries and yet have barely set foot in the office for over a year, despite ordering the lowest paid such as care home workers, social workers and refuse collectors/contractors to keep working throughout the pandemic.
Cllr Dr Matthew Atkins said; “The Conservative group calls on the City Council, and on the members of the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups, to show leadership in our community and start the process of getting our great city back to work.”
Conservative Group Whip Cllr Benedict Swann added; “It cannot be right that those Council staff earning up to 10 times more than essential workers in supermarkets and the care sector are able to prolong home working while council services become more and more delayed. Nor can the elected Administration keep closing the door on members of the public who want their voices to be heard in public meetings.”
Cllr Dr Matthew Atkins continued; “The pandemic has been a time of national crisis, but politicians and civil servants must not now use that crisis as an excuse to avoid scrutiny and shirk responsibility. It is time to lead by example and open the doors to the public once more with confidence and transparency, not hide away in the comfort of large houses making important decisions behind an online avatar. It is time for the City Council to show that Portsmouth is open for business.”
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Additional information and detailed legal points can be found in the letter from the Portsmouth Conservative Group to David Williams, Chief Executive of Portsmouth City Co
From: Portsmouth Conservative Group – Portsmouth City Council
To: David Williams, Chief Executive Officer – Portsmouth City Council.
REF: Remote public council meetings.
29th April 2021.
The Conservative group have prepared the following response to the proposals put forward at the group leader’s meeting this week:
1. We object in the strongest terms to any attempt to delay or deny the legal requirement for the council to hold a face-to-face AGM within the 21 days following the local elections on May 6th.
2. Any attempt to hold this meeting in an online or hybrid form will now clearly be illegal following the High Court decision handed down on 28th April (Hertfordshire County Council, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government). The Conservative group would therefore consider any decisions taken in such meetings to be void and without constitutional validity. We also consider it an appalling double standard that when the council consistently refuses to accept legal risk for the good of the city and its residents that it should propose to do so for the convenience of members and officers.
3. The Conservative group notes that preparations have been made in Gosport for which, we note, you are also Chief Executive, for a return to face-to-face meetings and is saddened that the leadership has not seen fit to undertake the same planning and preparation here.
4. The Conservative Group will not accept any reduction in membership of statutory committees and does not accept that the business of these committees needs to be disrupted any further given their overall size should be possible to accommodate in several different spaces available to the council.
5. The Conservative group will not support any further revision of the Standing Orders or the Constitution as it will not support remote or virtual meetings beyond the date they are legally necessary.
6. The Conservative group considers that democratic engagement and accountability has suffered considerably through the pandemic, especially in regard to the public ability to make deputations in person and using their own voice to advocate to the council and wishes to see a return to business as usual in this regard as soon as it safe and practical.
7. The Conservative Group does not at this time see any reason for further delegation of decisions to officers and considers that attempts to use SO58 for that purpose would potentially be an abuse of that power.
8. The Conservative Group notes that, subject to scientific advice and safety considerations, the lockdown roadmap suggests that almost all business of the council should be possible to conduct in person after June 21st and therefore considers that the council should be working towards that goal and that substantial changes to working practices for the intervening 6 weeks would be significant overreaction.
9. The Conservative group objects to the attempt to make these decisions on such an urgent basis one week before the local elections. Either greater forward planning should have been exercised or the decision should have been made urgently following the vote next week. The absence of the ability to properly scrutinise and debate these proposals as a result has partially informed our approach on this matter.
Therefore, the only proposals the Conservative group currently support are those which ensure full compliance with the law regarding a return to face-to-face public meetings by Portsmouth City Council. The council should undertake the necessary steps to facilitate this approach such as reviewing and obtaining appropriate venues and conducting the necessary safety reviews. However, we also believe regard should be had to the overall national situation of declining instance of the virus and extensive vaccination and testing regimes. Until advised otherwise the council should be preparing to follow the government lockdown roadmap as regards meetings and safety requirements moving forward.
Conservative Group Whip
On behalf of the Conservative Group on Portsmouth City Council
Press release in PDF format:
Letter to David Williams, Chief Executive Officer at Portsmouth City Council.