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Council / SIC convener keen to see return of face-to-face council meetings

Lerwick Town Hall.

THE CONVENER of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) says elected members on the whole are “keen to get back to face-to-face meetings as quickly as possible” instead of hosting them online.

Councillor Malcolm Bell said he believes initially SIC meetings could return in a “hybrid” form, once safe to do so, where some members are present in person and others are take part online.

Council meetings have largely been shelved as a result of coronavirus in the short term, and where they have taken place they have been held remotely using video technology.

Emergency Scottish legislation means that the public can be excluded from meetings on health grounds, although the local media has so far watched two SIC meetings during the pandemic in a room at the council’s North Ness headquarters through video conferencing.

Meetings are an important part of the local democracy decision-making process and Bell said holding sessions virtually has reiterated some benefits of holding them in person, such as gauging body language.

SIC meetings usually take place in the downstairs chamber in Lerwick Town Hall, and as convener Bell chairs the meeting of the full council, which sees 22 members sit around the table.

“We’ve shown that the technology can work, but equally we’ve been able to recognise its drawbacks,” SIC convener Bell said.

“I think it’s fair to say we probably appreciate now how much communication is done non-verbally.”

Bell said the council is “still trying to work through what the four phases [of leaving lockdown] mean for various things, and obviously the council meeting structure would be one of them”.

“But I think we’re keen to get back to face to face meetings as quickly as possible,” he added.

The two metre social distancing rule means that “even the main hall of the town hall could barely accommodate everybody that would need to come in” for a meeting of the full council, Bell said.