Town hall meetings are being cancelled and councillors suspending surgeries as Greenwich Council joins other local authorities across London and the UK in preparing to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Only a couple of hours after Londoners in particular were advised to end non-essential travel, work from home if possible, and stay away from other people, the reality of the Covid-19 crisis came to Woolwich Town Hall last night when a cabinet meeting was held with desks extending across three committee rooms so councillors and officers could keep their distance from each other.
Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe told colleagues that meetings of scrutiny and housing panels were being postponed, although the situation with other meetings – such as the monthly full council meetings which all councillors are summoned to attend – remains uncertain.
“We’re still taking advice about full council and we’ll make an announcement about that soon,” Thorpe said. Thanking senior council officers for their work, he added: “I just want to ask that everybody stays safe and looks after themselves.”
By law, councils have a key role to play in times of emergency. At the weekend, Thorpe asked for residents to sign up to help their neighbours through the Covid-19 crisis.
Councillors’ surgeries have also been suspended, although they are still available for residents to contact by email.
While some council functions can easily be postponed, others are harder – such as planning meetings, where decisions need to be made within a certain timeframe. Council offers are awaiting guidance from central government on these. In addition, many of the participants in council meetings – from members of the public to councillors themselves – will come from groups that will be asked to stay at home. The only public participant at last night’s cabinet meeting had a statement read out on her behalf by Thorpe.
The first meeting to be postponed is Wednesday’s regeneration scrutiny panel, which would have seen representatives from Transport for London, Network Rail and train operators quizzed on how they are serving the borough. But tonight’s planning meeting, at which plans for a 17-storey block by Deptford Creek and an 18-storey Travelodge by the Blackwall Tunnel approach are due to be discussed, remains on at the time of publication. (3.40pm update: It is going ahead with “social distancing” measures in place, similar to yesterday’s cabinet meeting.)
Later in the evening, the local government secretary Robert Jenrick announced that the government “would consider” legislation removing the requirement for councils to hold their annual general meetings – brief and usually uncontentious meetings to elect leaders and cabinets – in person.
He also added the government “would consider” allowing committee meetings to be held virtually. It is unclear how the public or press would access these.
Jenrick also said on social media that local by-elections would be deferred to 2021. This will almost certainly include the Glyndon by-election, called after the resignation of disgraced councillor Tonia Ashikodi following her conviction for housing fraud. (3.40pm update: Local Democracy Reporter Lachlan Leeming has confirmed this is now postponed.)
- Official figures on virus spread
- NHS advice
- Government info | Greenwich | Lewisham | Bexley
- How to help your neighbours
- Wash your hands
- Don’t stockpile, give to a food bank: Greenwich | Lewisham | Bexley
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