Conservative Group calls for return of East Lothian Council meetings to maintain public confidence during Covid-19 crisis

The Conservative Group on East Lothian Council is today calling for key Council committees to be restored following a period of administrative lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Since mid-March, East Lothian Council has been operating under emergency recess procedures, with decisions being taken by a small group of senior Councillors while all Council committee meetings have been suspended.

Conservative Councillors have praised the Council’s Covid-19 response but now want to see meetings of the full Council, the Planning Committee and key policy and scrutiny committees restored in a virtual format. The group is also calling for the creation of a new temporary committee to examine local Coronavirus related issues.

In a letter sent yesterday to East Lothian Council’s Chief Executive, Conservative Group Leader Jane Henderson says: “The Conservative Group continues to be extremely grateful and appreciative of everything that the Council have achieved and delivered in response to the Covid-19 crisis. We appreciate that we are still in the response phase of this emergency and do not wish to underestimate the continuing challenges in managing what may be a protracted crisis and recovery process.”

Henderson adds: “We feel it is now the right time to review the emergency recess procedures. This will allow Councillors to ensure that democratic decision making and scrutiny is maintained during the period ahead.”

With many meetings between Councillors and officers already taking place online, the Conservatives say the Council should follow the lead set by Holyrood and Westminster and use existing virtual video technology to conduct committee meetings.

Henderson says: “We recognise the importance of maintaining social distance and the need to ensure the safety of council staff, fellow Councillors and members of the public. To achieve this we hope that remote video technology can be used to restore these meetings.”

The Conservative Group says the emergency measures were initially “fit for purpose”, however scrutiny and oversight should be restored to ensure public confidence is maintained in key areas such as the planning process.

Amid concerns over a hiatus in large scale and controversial planning decisions, Henderson also urgently wants new arrangements for the Planning Committee to be finalised and published.

The Conservatives argue that the new system must ensure that statutory consultees, such as Community Councils, and the public who have submitted objections have the opportunity to make representations on planning applications during these meetings in line with existing procedures.

Says Henderson: “We firmly believe that this must be done urgently to ensure that the public has confidence in planning decisions. This is essential to prevent decisions being taking behind closed doors: or not being taken at all, which is likely to lead to decisions being taken by the Scottish Government reporter on grounds of non-determination.”

The Conservative Group also wants meetings of the full Council, the Audit & Governance Committee and the Policy & Performance Review Committee to be restored “as soon as practically possible”.

Councillor Lachlan Bruce, who chairs the Policy & Performance Review Committee, says: “We are the official Opposition and it is important that we take the lead in delivering effective scrutiny of both the minority Labour Administration and the wider functions of East Lothian Council. With social distancing measures likely to last for some time, it is our responsibility to ensure that different approaches to achieving scrutiny are developed by the Council.”

The Conservatives are also calling for meetings of the Council’s Education Committee to be reconvened.

Councillor Craig Hoy, a Member of the Education Committee, says: “Remote access to education for East Lothian’s school pupils is very important as the lockdown persists. While our schools remain closed to most pupils, the process of learning continues. It’s vital that Councillors are able to ask questions about the issues and challenges our schools, teachers and young people are facing.”

The Scottish Conservative Group is also calling for the formation of a new Committee to monitor and scrutinise the Council’s Covid-19 policies. This will allow close examination of the ongoing Covid-19 response, while ensuring that meetings of the full Council can focus on more wide-ranging matters, such as East Lothian Council’s current financial position.