DORSET Council’s response to using new technology for meetings during the pandemic lockdown has been criticised.

Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Ireland, says that while other councils are zooming ahead with full online meetings for all councillors Dorset is still crawling along on the internet highway with a man waving a red flag.

Many council committee meetings have been postponed, or cancelled since March and there have been no full meetings of the authority where all 82 councillors are able to take part.

It has led to criticism that the authority is now, effectively, being run by a dozen, all-Conservative cabinet members, and backbench councillors are being given little say in local democracy. The counter argument is that extraordinary times lead to extraordinary measures and the council often needs to take decisions quickly.

Said Cllr Ireland: “We've all had to learn and adapt in the last months, and it is clear we've done great work in many of our areas for the benefit of our residents, but I can't help getting the impression that in getting the business of this council functioning again, our peers our zooming off into the distance whilst we're doing a metaphorical 4mph behind a man waving a red flag…

“We need to be bring forward solutions as soon as possible to get all committees and other bodies of the council operating in what for now, is the new 'normal'.

“Instead of paddling around in the shallows, we need to be surfing the zeitgeist wave,” he said.

The next scheduled full meeting, the annual meeting of the council in September, is likely to be a hybrid event, with some councillors at South Walks House in Dorchester and the majority contributing online, although even that has yet to be finally agreed.

Council leader Spencer Flower admitted on Thursday that the current situation was ‘not ideal’ but explained that the council does not have the resources to devote to all its scheduled meetings at a time when many officers are carry out coronavirus work, rather than their normal duties.

He said that arranging and staffing online meetings takes additional resources but said that decisions were still being put to the test by the authority’s scrutiny committees.

Weymouth councillor Clare Sutton (Green) said she had asked for the July council meeting to be re-instated and suggesting ways it could be achieved. She also questioned why the council had been able to host an online meeting for 70-plus councillors, but could not manage one for all 82.

She said the public had legitimate concerns about decisions not being properly scrutinised if councillors were not being required to attend any meetings.

But the extraordinary meeting, held online on Thursday, unanimously agreed a change in rules, until May 2021, which will ensure councillors who do not attend meetings, are not debarred from office.

Said Cllr David Tooke (Alderholt Lib Dem) :  “Local democracy is order to maintain local democracy we should be holding meetings on our normal schedule, whether they be remote, whether they be live, whether they be hybrid,” he said.

Cllr Flower said the move, which he described as ‘an insurance policy’ was needed to cover a handful of councillors who found themselves members of committees which had been cancelled or for other reasons were unable to attend any meetings.

“During these exceptional times, officers and councillors have worked hard to ensure democracy continues.

“However, as some councillors may not have the opportunity to attend a virtual committee meeting, due to illness or because they are appointed to committees that currently are not taking place, these measures will prevent them being disqualified as a Dorset councillor,” he said.