The leader of Bromley’s opposition party has voiced concerns a new stripped-back calender of council meetings could jeopardise public input and scrutiny of council business.

In what was the first official remote meeting of a Bromley Council group, the authority’s urgency committee approved plans to keep local government rolling forward amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The newly-endorsed ways of working mean meetings with legal ramifications – such as planning and licensing sub-committees – will be held remotely and live-streamed online for public viewing.

Committee chairs will also retain increased powers bestowed upon them at a March 19 meeting of the urgency committee, which includes sole decision making powers on what items could be deferred from council business; while chairs can also cancel entire meetings at their discretion.

The process will be reviewed at the earliest possible opportunity if there’s a significant change in Government guidance, or no later than June.

However, the new calender would see policy development and scrutiny meetings – in which councillors can review council business in public view- postponed indefinitely.

It was a development Labour leader Angela Wilkins took issue with, saying the latest move “seems to me to be closing down democracy further”.

“To lose all the scrutiny  meetings for an indefinite period really is a major problem for me,” she told the online forum.

“I fail to understand where the scrutiny is for the executive and the increased powers given to the leader, particularly around the…decisions where it’s down to the leader what does and doesn’t get considered.”

“I just don’t see why we can’t have a scrutiny function.”

In response, Conservative Councillor Simon Fawthrop – who chairs the scrutiny committee of executive, resources and contracts – said the door remained open for the groups to continue their work, albeit outside of the public eye.

He added transferring scheduled meetings to publicly-available online forums was “not easy for officers” and was still a work in progress.

He said the changes however wouldn’t prevent scrutiny committees from undertaking work, “although they wouldn’t be (in the form of) public meetings”.

“We’re not actually trying to shut things down,” he said.

“We’re still finding our feet to some extent…it is a little bit of ‘baby steps’ but I can assure Cllr Wilkins from my perspective that scrutiny continues, just slightly different from this stage.”

Council leader Colin Smith said although he remained “uncomfortable” making decisions that “three months ago no one would have ever thought we’d have to take”, he did take solace in the lack of scrutiny meetings which would be missed in May.

“We’re all a little concerned about the democratic principle, we’d all rather not be doing it,” the council leader said.

He added there would be “a lot of positive stories to tell in the wrap-up” of the pandemic,  saying he was hopefully there would be a “lot of government money pumped into services”.

Earlier in the meeting, director of corporate services Mark Bowen said it was “fair we set a fair and transparent process now” for council operations.

While this first remote meeting of Bromley Council rolled along largely without an issue, Mr Bowen did concede that it was “quite clear” virtual meetings were actually more resource intensive for officers. 

However, the new format would still ensure public presence and access on key council items – such as controversial planning decisions.