Estimated IT equipment costs needed to ensure Aberdeenshire Council can move to hybrid meetings has been deemed “not good value for public money”.
Aberdeenshire councillors are preparing to return to in-person meetings after agreeing to move forward with plans to move to a hybrid model from next month.
The transition away from fully virtual meetings was discussed at a full council meeting last Thursday.
Councillors were recommended to approve a proposal that would see some meetings remain fully virtual while others could be held with some members back in-person.
The local authority said that it would have to invest in new technology to ensure all members taking part in a meeting could “adequately” participate as its existing equipment would not be suitable.
The necessary equipment required to carry out hybrid Area Committee meetings in venues across the region will also be assessed.
IT staff have estimated that it would cost between £10,000 and £25,000 to install permanent hybrid technology, including a surface hub screen and microphones, in just one meeting room, while it would cost up to £100,000 to replace existing equipment in the Council Chamber at Woodhill House in Aberdeen.
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 including the committee officer and chief executive.
The local authority has been holding its meetings online since March 2020.
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.
However, recent engagement with elected members revealed that a fully virtual-only option for meetings of full council and committees was not supported and there was a preference for moving to a hybrid model.
At Thursday’s meeting, council leader Andy Kille moved a motion to agree with the recommendation and said that hybrid meetings “offers flexibility going forward” and added that if the proposed pilot meetings are successful the number of hybrid meetings would broaden over time.
However, councillor Martin Ford moved an amendment to keep fully virtual meetings 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, councillor Kille said that delaying the move would not be beneficial, and 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.”
The matter went to a vote with 51 members opting to approve the motion and two in favour of the amendment. Three no votes were also received.
Going forward a limited number of council meetings will now be chosen to pilot the hybrid model until January 2022.
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.
An update on the first phase of the hybrid model will go before full council in January along with the recommended next steps.
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.
By local democracy reporter Kirstie Topp