'Online council meetings encouraged more public debate'

Cllr Stephen Ferguson says online council meetings promoted more debate.

Cllr Stephen Ferguson says online council meetings promoted more debate. - Credit: SNTC

 I first attended a St Neots Town Council meeting in Autumn 2017 as a member of the public, to ask the council’s permission to allow us to start a parkrun in St Neots. I don’t mind telling you that I found the whole experience rather intimidating. 

As I snuck in quietly through the door into a small room in the Priory Centre, 21 councillors stared at me. 

Meetings are now held in person at the Priory Centre in St Neots.

Meetings are now held in person at the Priory Centre in St Neots. - Credit: HUNTS POST

It’s not that they weren’t friendly, because they absolutely were, but as I sat listening to their deliberations, patiently waiting for my turn to speak, I struggled to understand their complicated procedures, and even sometimes the language. I was the only member of the public present. I didn’t imagine ever going back.

And then, in May 2018, I was elected as a town councillor, and found myself on the other side of the table smiling blankly at the occasional resident in the public gallery for one of our meetings.

This is why, when I was elected mayor, one of my top priorities was to make the town council more open and accessible. 

Democracy works best when electors take an interest in the decisions that are made by their representatives. It is important that residents see first-hand the careful consideration that goes into the choices we make.

For my first year as mayor, all meetings were held online. It might just be that everyone was bored of the television after months of lockdown, but during that time the virtual public galleries were usually packed with interested residents. 

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Better still, after the meetings finished, I found social media groups were alive with debate about the topics we had been discussing.

Unfortunately in May this year, the legislation that allowed us to meet remotely expired. Since then all councils have been forced to meet in person once again. Our first few meetings back have predictably played in front of mostly empty galleries. 

This whole experiment has shown that people really are interested in democracy if you remove the barriers to participation. Better still it has inspired more people to stand for election.

I hope that the Government sees sense and legislates to allow us to return to more accessible online meetings soon. 

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