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Access and safety issues at Cambridgeshire County Council meetings in the spotlight

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A report to ensure Full Council meetings can be held in a safe and fully accessible way at Cambridgeshire County Council’ s new headquarters will be recommended to members at its Strategy and Resources Committee (29 March).

New Shire Hall in Alconbury Weald opened for business in summer 2021 – but public health restrictions linked to the pandemic have limited its use for both staff and members.

A ‘multi function’ room designed to accommodate council meetings has been successfully used for committee meetings which have had fewer than 22 people attending.

A report will highlight safety issues for full council meetings at New Shire Hall. Photo:Allford Hall Monaghan Morris/CCC
A report will highlight safety issues for full council meetings at New Shire Hall. Photo:Allford Hall Monaghan Morris/CCC

During the pandemic, social distancing has meant the room is too small to accommodate all 61 members for Full Council, along with officers, members of the public and the press – something that would also have been the case in the previous chamber at Shire Hall in Cambridge. So, since government legislation allowing virtual meetings ended in May 2021, Full Council meetings have been held in external venues.

However, at next week’s Strategy and Resources Committee, members will hear that even when the social distancing requirements relax there are still potential constraints.

For those members located closest to the public seating there is no way to provide physical separation, leading to concerns about physical safety

When configured for Full Council the room will fit the required number of desks for 61 members but offer only a limited area for the public/media – down to 20 seats from the previous 26 in the public gallery at old Shire Hall.

While legally compliant in respect of building regulations and other matters, such as fire safety and evacuation routes, when set up for Full Council the room can only accommodate a small number of mobility impaired members.

Because the room is on the first floor, with a requirement for specific evacuation procedures this also imposes limitations on the number of members of the public with physical impairments who can attend meetings.

To accommodate 61 members, seats and desks will need to be placed close together – for typically up to four to five hour meetings.

The report recommends members ask the assistant director of property to prepare a detailed report looking at safety, security and working environment and the challenges to the council’s aspiration for public accessibility at its meetings, to come back to the September committee.

“We have an absolute responsibility to make sure that when important matters are discussed by Cambridgeshire’s elected representatives, that people who want to attend in person can do so. This is particularly important if we are discussing changes to services which affect people with disabilities," said Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, chair of the S&R committee and leader of the council.

"And even for those who can get into the room, sadly – in this day and age - we have to be mindful of their personal safety.”

“If we are honest about wanting diversity among our elected representatives and good participation in local decision-making we can’t start off in a new headquarters by saying there is no room for more than a handful of people with physical disabilities to attend our major democratic meeting," agreed Cllr Elisa Meschini, vice chair and deputy leader.

In addition to the recommendation about the report, members will also be asked to agree that while infection rates remain high in the area, that public health guidance is followed and if physical distancing is still required beyond April, Full Council will continue to meet in external venues.

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