Town Halls looking at theatre as possible venue for council meetings in Hertfordshire

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For the past 12 months councils have been allowed to ‘meet’ virtually

The drama of local politics could be coming to a local theatre . . . as councils look for meeting venues large enough to be Covid-secure.

For the past 12 months councils have been allowed to ‘meet’ virtually, in line with Covid-19 legislation.

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But from May 7 there’s a legal expectation that councils will revert to holding meetings where councillors share the same physical space.

Gordon Craig Theatre, in StevenageGordon Craig Theatre, in Stevenage
Gordon Craig Theatre, in Stevenage

A number of councils are concerned that their existing rooms aren’t large enough for all councillors to meet at the same time – while observing social distancing measures.

And the Gordon Craig Theatre, in Stevenage – which has been closed for 12 months – has already been earmarked as a possible venue for council meetings.

Bosses at the 500-seat theatre have already had enquiries from both Hertfordshire County Council and Stevenage Borough Council.

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And that means that – provided the theatre is allowed to re-open next month, as planned – it could soon be the drama of politics that’s top of the bill.

Theatre manager Paul Ruff, from operators SLL, says he ‘welcomes’ the idea of the venue being used for council meetings.

It would, he says, be nice to see the space being used, after being closed for more than 12 months.

And the meetings, he says, would be a useful exercise in preparation for future audiences.

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Leader of Hertfordshire County Council Cllr David Williams says the Stevenage theatre is now the council’s ‘Plan B’.

But he is still hoping a hearing in the High Court next week (April 21), could enable meetings to continue virtually – either in part of wholly – after all.

That’s because the county council – alongside Lawyers in Local Government – is seeking a ‘declaratory judgement’, for a correct and modern interpretation of 1972 local government legislation.

That’s the legislation – due to come back into full force on May 7 – that dictates councillors have to be ‘present’ at a council meeting in order to vote.

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And at next week’s hearing the high court will be asked to determine whether ‘presence’ at a meeting could actually be virtual, as well as physical.

Cllr Williams says he remains ‘disappointed’ that government could not find the time to progress primary legislation that would allow remote or hybrid meetings to continue.

But he says, the prospects of a positive outcome of the court case are “very strong”.

“Hopefully, as soon as possible thereafter we will get the green light to not be required to hold meetings physically in a certain venue,” says Cllr Williams.

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“Nevertheless we need to plan for the fact there are important meetings that need to be held as we go through May, including the AGM – and so we have to think about alternatives.”

Cllr Williams suggests they could probably ‘squeeze’ councillors into the council chamber in a socially-distanced way, if they – for instance – had Perspex screens.

But that, he says, would have an impact on the council’s grade II listed building.

And the theatre, he said, had been earmarked as a potential site for meetings, if they need to pursue ‘plan B’.

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Cllr Williams said allowing for virtual attendance would enable those councillors who couldn’t or did not want to attend in person – for shielding reasons or otherwise – to still participate.

And he said that over the past year there were those who had found electronic meetings more convenient.

According to the ‘roadmap’, from May 17, theatres may be able to start opening-up in a socially-distanced way – with audiences of up to half the usual capacity.

The Gordon Craig Theatre can hold up to 500 audience members – and council meetings tend to include up to 100 people, including councillors, staff, media and public.

The theatre would usually host a programme of touring productions. But Mr Ruff says many companies aren’t planning to tour until later in the year.

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