Many obstacles block the road toward restarting physical council meetings in Gwent County Borough

OBSTACLES are in the way to restarting physical council meetings in Blaenau Gwent, despite many councillors longing to go back to a council chamber.

It was also revealed at a council meeting on Thursday, March 30, that Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council has no plans to find or build a replacement for the Civic Centre, which is currently being demolished.

At the moment Blaenau Gwent County Borough meetings are held mostly online, with some in a hybrid format.

This means that some councillors attend meetings remotely online, while others are in a room in the General Office.

The hiraeth for a return to the chamber was brought up under the questions by councillor’s section of the agenda at the council meeting.

Cllr Lee Parsons said: “There are councillors who wish to attend face to face meetings.

“The current contract with Aneurin Bevan (University) Health Board ends in September, can the leader confirm when face to face full council meetings will start taking place at the General Office.”

Council leader, Cllr Steve Thomas replied: “At this point in time we don’t really have a facility, I can’t give an affirmative answer because there are some barriers we would have to overcome.

“Firstly the contract with health board ends on September 30.

“There’s also an option to extend for a further six months if agreed by the council and board.

“I guess a lot of that is around whether there’s going to be a further (Covid-19) winter vaccination programme, so we wait for news on that.”

Cllr Thomas explained that the in the budget for 2023/2024 a business case had been agreed by council to rent out rooms at the General Office in the hope of making £60,000 a year, this figure includes £4,000 from the health board.

“If that contract ends we’d need to find that shortfall elsewhere ” said Cllr Thomas.

Cllr Thomas also pointed out the in September last year the council had agreed a multi-location meetings policy, that all council and cabinet meetings would be held remotely and formal scrutiny meetings would be held on “a hybrid basis.”

Cllr Thomas: “It’s importnat to stress if we go back to face to face meeting it won’t be as it was before March 2020 as things have moved on.”

In 2021, a new law was brought in by the Welsh Government which require local authorities to ensure their meetings are capable of being held remotely.

It cemented emergency legislation that was brought in during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 which allowed meetings to take place remotely.

Cllr Thomas said: “The local government act now stipulates that we cannot mandate or summon councillors to a physical meeting.”

He added that if the health board don’t renew their contract then the council would “look at the building again.”

Under the questions by councillors policy Cllr Parsons is entitled to ask a follow up question.

Cllr Parsons said: “Can the leader confirm there are no plans to build a political arena in Blaenau Gwent in the near future?”

Cllr Thomas said: “Council would need to take a decision on what buildings are available to us.

“At this point in time there is absolutely no council decision to do so.”

Cllr Parsons added: “I don’t think the people of Blaenau Gwent would buy into us building a new arena.”

The decision to leave and demolish the Civic Centre was made back in March 2021.

The Grade II-listed former steelworks General Office in Ebbw Vale has now become a “democratic hub” for Blaenau Gwent and is effectively the council’s headquarters.

Council officers have already explained to councillors at meetings that they believe that no room at the General Office is big enough to become a council chamber and allow all councillors as well as senior staff members be in there for meetings at the same time.

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