THE removal of the public’s right to speak in West Berkshire Council meetings has been slammed as ‘unacceptable’ and risks ‘bringing local democracy into disrepute’.

Before the coronavirus lockdown, people unhappy or concerned with a particular local issue or a planning application could voice their concerns to councillors. But as the social distancing rules have forced council meetings to be held remotely, via video conferencing, the public is losing that right.

Councillors voted to approve the changes, allowing remote meetings to go ahead and removing the public’s right to speak, at a meeting of the full council on April 29.

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The move was slammed as “undermining democracy” and preventing proper debate, by opposition councillors and even two backbench Tory councillors. The council executive insisted the changes were necessary because of a legal loophole.

Councillor Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen), leader of the council, said: “As a council we have always welcomed input from members of the public. We’re not intending to remove this engagement, just do it in a different way because of the circumstances. It’s only temporary.”

People will still be able to submit written questions and statements during the virtual remote meetings. But they won’t be able to ask follow-up questions, or be quizzed by councillors about planning applications.

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Cllr Carolyne Culver (Green, Ridegway) said: “In the current crisis, public scrutiny of what happens in local government is even more important than ever. The potential technical problems could be overcome. The public will interpret this as undermining democracy and taking advantage of the situation.”

New emergency laws brought in at the start of April allow councils to hold meetings remotely — previously they had to be in a specific room. But the new laws say that if anybody participating in the meeting has problems either hearing or being heard, then that meeting and any decisions made could be declared legally invalid.

Cllr Alan Law (Con, Basildon) said: “The problem has been caused by the poor way the regulations have been drafted. It would be very easy for someone to claim ‘I was not able to hear a considerable part of the meeting’, and in that respect they could declare the meeting null and void.

“What’s being proposed is a second best alternative, to make democracy work in the best way as possible. And we’re not preventing those members of the public … they can make their point now, but instead of verbally it’s in writing. That’s the only change, and I think that’s actually a pretty low cost, to allow the function of the council to continue.”

One exception to the changes is that people will still be able to speak during licensing committee meetings — which deals with things like off licences selling beer to street drinkers or night clubs that don’t have proper security — as this is required by law.

Cllr James Cole (Con, Hungerford & Kintbury), chair of the licensing committee, abstained from the vote to remove public speaking rights, along with Cllr Claire Rowles (Con, Hungerford & Kintbury), in a rare backbench rebellion.

Cllr Cole said: “I realise the need to make temporary restrictions. But I find it very difficult to vote in favour of something our residents would find unacceptable. Particularly when temporary could mean a year, or more.

“The public will feel it has not been heard. We may be setting ourselves up for more challenges by taking away this right.”

Concerns were also raised about whether controversial housing developments could be granted planning permission without councillors hearing the voices of people who live nearby.

Cllr Tony Vickers (Lib Dem, Wash Common) referenced as an example the Sandleford Park development — 1,500 new homes on the southern outskirts of Newbury. A key planning application is due to be decided in the next few weeks which could pave the way for the controversial development to go ahead.

Cllr Vickers said: “It would put our democracy into disrepute and leave a great sense of grievance, whatever the result.”

Green councillors also abstained from the vote while Liberal Democrat councillors voted with the Tories; albeit some of them “reluctantly”.