It's not common for the deliberations of a Parish Council to go viral - in truth they're generally not that interesting. However, the unfortunate events during a Zoom meeting of Handforth Parish Council's Planning and Environment Committee have led to the video being watched more than a million times. Given that the population of Handforth was just over 6,000 in 2011, that's rather impressive.
Unfortunately for the Parish councillors concerned, their struggles with technology and, in some cases, basic courtesy, have made it look like a bit of a shambles (I paraphrase in order to protect the innocent). In the midst of the mayhem, the acting Clerk, Jackie Weaver, attempts to create some structure, whilst councillors walk away from their cameras, attempt to speak whilst muted, and talk over each other.
From an outsider's perspective, it does look as though the Parish Council requires the mediation skills of a senior United Nations diplomat, although once Jackie (who is the Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils) had started excluding those behaving badly, the meeting did seem to be rather more cordial.
But, regardless of the circumstances that surrounded the meeting, it is a reminder to those of us in a similar position that, when you're in a virtual meeting, especially one where there are opposing factions, you need to be on top of your game or, at the very least, paying attention to the picture of you that everyone else is seeing.
That can be a challenge, especially in areas where broadband speeds are less than optimal, and where you have councillors who are unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, with technology. And sometimes, people behave as though there is nobody watching, which can produce some rather bizarre moments, as Handforth councillors demonstrate vividly.
The role of the Chair is criticial. Not only do you have to steer the meeting in order to complete the business, but you need to watch the screen to ensure that people can contribute. And, for most of us, that's a relatively new challenge, one that most of us aren't trained for, and it's a real test of your skills as a Chair.
I'm very fortunate in that, having served on far more committees than is really healthy over the years, I have a reasonable sense of what does and does not work. My colleagues have re-elected me twice, so I'm hoping that that represents an endorsement. But I wouldn't call it easy, especially if it's what one might describe as an "open mic session", where it's necessary or useful to open the discussion beyond just the councillors.
For those with less committee experience, there is training available through your County Association of Local Councils, and I would strongly recommend it, although whether or not the training material is designed to cope with virtual meetings is a question I can't personally answer. The basic skills don't change, however.
The basic courtesies don't change either. Allowing people to finish before you speak, keeping your interventions brief and to the point, judicious use of humour and encouragement and staying muted unless you want to intervene, help the Chair and the Clerk in their roles.
I hope that Handforth Parish Council finds a resolution to the problems it clearly has, but when Parish Councils go sour, it can be a hard road back...