Plans to spend more than £100,000 on IT equipment so that Aberdeenshire Council can stage “hybrid meetings” have been blasted as a waste of public money.
Councillors are preparing to return to in-person meetings, following 18 months of gathering virtually to discuss important business.
From next month, the local authority will adopt a “hybrid model” as it emerges from the Covid rules that have governed its actions for so long.
That means some meetings will remain fully virtual while others could be held with some members back in-person and others contributing via their computers.
The local authority said that it would have to invest in new IT gear to ensure all members taking part in a meeting could “adequately” participate – as its existing equipment would not be suitable.
The technology required to carry out hybrid Area Committee meetings in venues across the region will also be assessed.
Costs of Aberdeenshire Council hybrid meetings
IT staff have estimated that it would cost between £10,000 and £25,000 to install permanent hybrid technology in just one meeting room.
And it would cost up to £100,000 to replace existing equipment in the council chamber at Woodhill House in Aberdeen.
At the recent meeting, council leader Andy Kille said the move would “offer flexibility going forward”.
He added that if the proposed pilot meetings are successful the number of hybrid meetings would broaden over time, as he urged others to back the plans.
‘Just not worth it’
However councillor Martin Ford argued that meetings should remain fully virtual until January due to the current Covid infection levels.
He said: “A great deal of effort, time and money is going to be put into doing something that I don’t think will be an improvement on what we have now, in fact it may even in some ways be worse.
“I think in terms of costs and officers time involved the additional benefits that we will get out of those meetings as opposed to continuing with virtual meetings is just not worth it.
“It’s not good value for public money.”
He was supported by councillor Colin Pike, who added: “There are costs incurred in this and pressure on some people to be brought back into offices, others not.
“We need to take a pragmatic response.”
However Mr Kille said: “Flexibility is the key here, the ability to adapt to circumstances.
“Agreeing this today, we allow officers to start progressing with the plans, experimentations and pilots, and we are in a position to react.”
Overwhelming majority back plans
The matter went to a vote with 51 members opting to approve the motion and two in opposition.
A limited number of council meetings will now be chosen to pilot the hybrid model until January.
And external consultants will now be brought in to asses the local authority’s meeting venues to determine the full costs required for upgrading IT equipment.
How will councillors stay safe?
The two metre distancing rule and additional ventilation measures will be in place at all in-person meetings in a bid to protect those in attendance.
With the two metre rule in place the council chamber, which has capacity for all 70 elected members, key officers and members of the public would only be able to accommodate 18 members and officers.
In the period between March 2020 and February 2021 Aberdeenshire Council noted that travel miles claimed and costs to host in-person meetings had fallen by 92% when compared to the same time the previous year.
Neighbouring local authority Aberdeen City Council has been successfully holding hybrid meetings since August last year, with meetings webcast online for members of the public.