Local democracy makes history as Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority goes digital
Members of the public joined journalists clicking in to watch Mayor James Palmer chair the Board of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority as it met ‘virtually’, ensuring the authority’s business carried on despite the Covid-19 emergency.
In a major first for the mayoral combined authority, board members convened remotely for the two-hour virtual meeting during which they discussed a programme of crucial plans to help business stay afloat and secure jobs during the emergency, including market town improvements and housing development loans.
Following a vote by the board, the mayor used his powers under the ‘Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority Order 2017’ to enact legally the board’s decision.
Some 50 members of the public observed proceedings via social media and through a link from the combined authority website. They heard officers presenting reports, the board debating items, the mayor consulting, and then making his decision.
Government instructions to practice social distancing prevent physical meetings of the Combined Authority Board. But until a predicted change in the law allows formal local government meetings to happen online, the use of the mayor’s legal powers ensured the authority business could go forward.
Under the ‘Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority Order 2017’, the mayor has a general power of competence to do anything the combined authority can do, with certain exceptions. The mayor used that power, in consultation with board members, to decide items on the agenda where the law allowed him to do so. Decisions the mayor was not empowered to make himself have been deferred until the next official board meeting, when the required legal changes for remote meetings will have been enacted.
Mayor Palmer said: “Thanks to the hard work and cooperation of members and officers, we used social media to maintain social distancing and defy the virus. It’s fantastic that new technology has helped our historic democracy carry on, simultaneously in isolation and in public, with the full scrutiny and transparency we expect of our political authorities.
“In a unique situation, every one of us is facing new and unforeseen difficulties, and it’s critical that the institutions and mechanisms which exist to help people are up to the challenge. Here at the combined authority, we will be resolute in doing everything in our power to support the community in getting through this. And we’ll be agile and fleet of foot in finding new ways to do it.”
“It is crucial that the combined authority does not falter or cease to function during this difficult period. It would be wrong to delay decisions affecting the wellbeing of our community, wrong to neglect planning for the region’s future when the emergency has passed.”
The ‘virtual meeting’ was recorded and is available via the combined authority’s website. The success of the technology, which allowed the members to meet remotely in public, is likely to herald more meetings conducted along the same lines.
When the government passes promised legislation to allow local government to conduct formal meetings online as a matter of course, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority will be in the vanguard.