Lancashire County Council's first virtual meeting sees praise for staff - and a political spat

Lancashire is living in a tough time, but “we will come through it and be stronger for it”.

By Paul Faulkner
Thursday, 14th May 2020, 8:26 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th May 2020, 8:28 pm

That was the message from Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver as he opened the first virtual meeting at the authority – in the form of cabinet.

Members gathered remotely as meetings restarted after a two-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus lockdown.

It is thought to be the first time in the council’s 131-year history that a meeting has taken place away from County Hall in Preston.

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The cabinet participants were scattered across Lancashire rather than gathered at County Hall (L-R - Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali, Conservative council leader Geoff Driver, health and wellbeing cabinet member Shaun Turner and deputy council leader Keith Iddon)

County Cllr Driver said that the move to online meetings showed that the authority was doing its “very best to keep democracy going and let the people of Lancashire know exactly what we are doing”.

The Conservative leader also praised the flexibility shown by staff and paid particular tribute to key workers in those schools which remain open for the children of other such workers and vulnerable groups – as well as the efforts being made to support the care sector. The meeting heard that the total amount so far spent on personal protective equipment distributed by the Lancashire Resilience Forum stood at £16m.

“One of the things we’re particularly proud of, which I think Lancashire stands out on, is that every care home in the county receives a call every day from a member of staff to check that everything is okay and to see if there is anything we can do to help,” County Cllr Driver said.

Labour opposition leader Azhar Ali also thanked staff for their “sterling work”, adding: “We are all united in supporting our officers who are working tirelessly to make sure we do the best that we can for our communities.”

But the political unity was less apparent when, in scenes reminiscent of many a clash played out at County Hall itself in the past, the two main party leaders traded insults over each other’s commitment to democracy.

County Cllr Ali claimed that County Cllr Driver was refusing to engage with opposition politicians or allow cross-party scrutiny of decisions by failing to commit to virtual meetings of other County Hall committees which fulfil that function.

“Residents and councillors have been writing to you and you have been sending blank responses – and when [Green Party] county councillor Gina Dowding wrote back to you and [asked] what you mean by a blank response, you said you had put it in the bin.

“That is not the way to run a council, to shut down democracy by telling councillors you’re not going to engage with them. Unlike councils across the country, where [political] groups are working together constructively, you’re not even prepared to respond to our emails.”

County Cllr Ali was making an apparent reference to messages recently sent by cycling campaigners calling for safety improvements on the roads, which County Cllr Driver told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he had responded to with blank messages as an acknowledgement of receipt – because he was too busy dealing with the fallout from coronavirus to reply individually to around 50 identical emails on the topic.

But County Cllr Driver hit back at the opposition leader for his own record during the Labour group’s four years in control at County Hall between 2013 and 2017.

“I’d simply say this in answer to what you’ve said – I don’t think we will take any lessons in democracy from somebody who was part of an administration that took literally thousands of decisions in secret, behind closed doors.

“Particularly referring to you Cllr Ali – you were the one who took decisions and paid out over £300,000 worth of grants to your chums and other people in your area without any influence or consideration at all even by the officers,” County Cllr Driver said.

That was a seeming reference to a controversy over the awarding of community wellbeing grants by the Labour administration in 2017. An independent audit report ordered when the Tories retook control later that year found that the process to assess and select projects in receipt of more than half a million pounds of council cash was inadequate – but lawful.

Having raked over each other’s reputations, the exchange ended with County Cllr Ali demanding: “Are you going to engage with [the opposition groups] or not – yes or no?”

“No,” County Cllr Driver replied.

The Conservative leader has previously told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that an opposition call to set up a cross-party committee looking at how Lancashire can recover from the effects of Covid-19 would be a “hindrance” to the process.

However, County Cllr Driver today praised the way in which all 15 of Lancashire’s councils had “come together to do what we’re here to do – to serve the people of Lancashire, especially the most vulnerable” during the coronavirus crisis.

The next virtual meeting at the authority is expected to be the development control committee early next month.