Fife Council 'undemocratic' as councillors leave meeting in protest

Fife Council has been criticised for going ahead with the meeting.Fife Council has been criticised for going ahead with the meeting.
Fife Council has been criticised for going ahead with the meeting.
Fife Council has defended its decision to hold a planning meeting behind closed doors after technical issues prevented a live broadcast from going ahead.

Councillors left Wednesday’s North East Planning Committee in protest after legal advisors took the decision to hold the meeting in private when the Microsoft Teams stream failed to work.

The problems meant that the public were not able to witness proceedings on items such as a plan for 60 new homes at Guardbridge and new flats for St Andrews.

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It is understood that legal advisors recommended the meeting proceed, despite public scrutiny not being possible, in order to avoid delaying any potential economic development.

However, several councillors left the meeting in protest at the move, saying that without the public or press present it would make it “anti-democratic”.

Cllr Bill Porteous (Liberal Democrat, East Neuk and Landward), a member of the committee who walked out, described the decision to go ahead as a “threat to democracy”.

He said: “With live streaming to the public not in operation that meant neither the public, the press, planning applicants or objectors on several very important planning applications could listen in to what should be a public meeting even during our ongoing Covid pandemic.

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“Technical issues which had delayed the meeting start for over an hour continued to undermine the meeting for all North East councillors and denied public viewing.

“I left the meeting as I could not take part in a meeting I deemed to be undemocratic.”

Cllr Linda Holt (Independent, East Neuk and Landward), also left the meeting following the legal advisors’ decision, and hit out at the council’s “technical ineptitude”.

“The legal advice that Fife Council had expended ‘best endeavours’ to get the technical issues sorted out and under Covid it was therefore safe legally to continue without live streaming I found unconvincing and beside the point: excluding press and public is simply anti-democratic.

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“The fault lies squarely with Fife Council’s technical ineptitude; the meeting already started more than 90 minutes after schedule because technicians were unable to sort out the appalling sound quality.

“It is really disappointing that the council puts its own interests ahead of the public interest in being transparent and democratically accountable.

“There is already considerable public distrust in the planning process at Fife Council; councillors choosing to conduct their decision-making behind closed doors which deliberately exclude scrutiny from press and public will only damage that trust further.”

Morag Ferguson, Fife Council’s head of legal and democratic services, said the local authority was working to resolve issues with livestreaming – but did not rule out future meetings being held without a public audience.

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She said: “In terms of the Coronavirus legislation, the requirement to make meetings accessible to the public has been suspended.

“Although we are trying to live stream meetings where we can, there is no legal obligation to do so.”

A spokeswoman for the council added that the decisions from the meeting would be minuted and published ‘as soon as possible’.