Lockdowns have had positive impact on local democracy

The Speakers’ Corner Trust has published a report showing that the coronavirus lockdowns and the restrictions imposed on local government business have had a positive impact on local democracy.

According to the research, significantly more people have engaged with councils since March 2020, including logging in to council meetings, submitting questions remotely, and taking part in debate when previously caring responsibilities, a disability, or travel would have been barriers to participation.

However, the charity has warned that the move online has created problems for those with little or no access to technology – giving rise to a potential ‘digital democracy postcode lottery’. The research among 50 English councils was carried out between February and April 2021, one year on from the first lockdown. Speakers’ Corner Trust, the national charity promoting freedom of expression, public debate and active citizenship, ran a parallel online survey of media reporters employed under the Local Democracy Reporting partnership which is managed by the BBC.

The research shows that nine in ten councils perceived enhancements to local democracy as a direct result of online public meetings with available recordings (92 per cent), councillors meeting online (90 per cent) and new opportunities to communicate and interact online (88 per cent). More than six in ten councils think the coronavirus pandemic has had a net positive impact on local democracy.

Also, a majority of of local democracy reporters (56 per cent) feel the impact of restrictions has enhanced democratic participation, although they are less positive than councils, citing concerns around meeting-technology failures, a lack of or slow response from officers to requests for information, and the exclusion of those with no access to the internet.

Louise Third, chair and interim CEO of Speakers’ Corner Trust, said: “Has the Covid-19 experience been a ‘shot in the arm’ for local democracy? I was convinced that the national lockdown in March 2020 would deal another hammer blow to local democratic engagement. Decades of disenchantment with politicians have left council chambers empty and many people disinterested and disengaged. This piece of research shows that some good has come out of the changes imposed on local councils by the pandemic. Now they must be allowed to continue to adapt and develop different ways to bring more people into decision-making. There must be no going back.”

Event Diary

The Security Event is set to be the first major exhibition to take place in the sector when it opens its doors on 7-9 September 2021 at the NEC in Birmingham and for the first time it will also encompass the National Cyber Security Show.

digitech21 will seek to demystify the increasingly complex technology landscape and will showcase a host of public sector best practice case studies and the very best solution providers, each of whom are helping organisations to transform and improve the way in which the public sector delivers services to the citizen.