A vote on the coronavirus strategy for the town – described as “a suspension of democracy” by one councillor – was scrapped last night due to the lockdown.

Decisions on the town’s future will instead be made by the chief executive in consultation with Reading Borough Council (RBC) leader Jason Brock until new government legislation on virtual voting comes forward.

RBC had planned to hold an urgent three-member policy committee meeting at 5pm last night at the Civic Offices (March 24) until the government’s ban of public gatherings of more than two people, announced on Monday, scuppered the vote.

READ MORE: Reading Borough Council delays decision on three businesses licences amid coronavirus

A new proposal was formed yesterday to hold the meeting on Microsoft Teams but that was later changed to an informal video conference meeting, “to check the technology works well enough” and discuss the council’s response to the coronavirus strategy.

No decisions were made, as councillors must vote in person under current government legislation.

"Suspension of democracy"

Lib Dem councillor Ricky Duveen had earlier hit out at the council for deciding to take decisions in a three-person committee, with no Lib Dem or Green councillors, calling the proposal “a suspension of democracy in Reading”.

RBC leader Councillor Jason Brock hit back at the claims, highlighting the need to act swiftly in this emergency situation.

He said: “I am very shocked to hear about Cllr Duveen’s ‘fury’, especially since he has made no effort to contact me on the matter.

“This is all the more surprising because all other opposition group leaders have been in touch.

“I can only assume that he makes his representations to the bathroom mirror and such infantile politics is entirely inappropriate at this crucial time when we all need to collaborate in the interests of residents.

“We have been publishing all information publicly and continue to emphasise the need for transparency, even in the current crisis.

“There is no suspension of democracy in Reading and, as council leader, I remain fully accountable for my actions and decisions.”

Why are decisions now being made by the chief executive?

RBC’s delegations register states the chief executive can take action necessary to respond to wartime, civil or other emergencies, where it is not practical to get committee consent.

RBC closed the Civic Offices and many other buildings to the public last Tuesday and cancelled all non-essential meetings, following government advice to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Further restrictions were imposed by the government on Monday night, which mean people can only leave their house for essential reasons.

READ MORE: Reading Borough Council community action line has gone live

Meanwhile, the government has asked councils to consider delegating committee decisions where appropriate.

Cllr Brock said: “We are clearly in an emergency situation and it is vital that the council acts swiftly to deliver on its responsibilities to Reading’s residents.

“The new government instruction issued only on Monday prohibits us from holding even the urgent Policy committee tonight.

“The important thing is that we make use of the decision book system so that all decisions we take our open and transparent and can be called into review.”

What is the council's coronavirus strategy?

RBC’s strategy, which had been set for a vote last, focuses on:

  • Supporting and protecting vulnerable children and adults by ensuring the social care system continues to function effectively
  • Supporting the people who are most vulnerable and isolated in our communities
  • Supporting businesses and the local economy and securing Reading’s economic recovery

Could virtual meetings be held soon?

Green councillor Rob White also criticised plans to hold a three-member committee meeting and said he hoped for full committee meetings to go on “to allow decisions to be properly scrutinised so we can get the best action for residents.”

Cllr Brock raised concern that holding full council meeting with all 46 member of the council plus officers, or even the full 15-member policy committee, virtually would be difficult, with members potentially losing internet connection or internet bandwidth struggling.

But his said it is his goal to hold policy committee meetings which include the leaders of all parties on the council.

He has urged the government to bring in legislative changes urgently to allow for virtual meetings.

The government has confirmed it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period but it is not clear when this will get royal assent.

What else was due to be discussed at the meeting?

The new policy committee were also set to vote tonight on items from meetings that were cancelled last week including:

  • £9 million investment in road repairs
  • A new tree strategy
  • The draft local transport plan
  • How Palmer Park will be revamped

These matters are now set to be decided by the chief executive using delegated powers and published in the council's decision book.