Scenes from Bedford Council's planning committee meeting at the Corn Exchange Image: LDRS

Bedford’s cavernous Corn Exchange was the venue for the first in person council meeting in more than a year as councillors made a tentative return to making decisions in real reality rather than virtual.

But with cases of the so-called Indian variant causing concern in the community, not everyone was happy to be sitting inside for Monday’s (17 May 2021) two and a half hour planning committee meeting.

Burly door staff ensured that everyone checked in using the NHS app, before leading mask-wearing members of the public to their socially distanced seats.

Councillors took their places in between plastic shields, with microphones hooked up to an array of speakers.

The members themselves were socially, as well as politically, distanced, with virtually the width of the auditorium separating the Conservatives from their Lib Dem and Labour colleagues.

It didn’t take long for committee chair Cllr Jon Abbott (Lib Dem, Oakley) to say how unhappy he was that councils were not allowed to continue to allow people to join virtually.

Whilst it’s lovely to see everyone in public, I’m not particularly happy with being here tonight,” he said just seconds into being confirmed as chairman for the municipal year.

I feel at the moment with the increase in the Indian variant in Bedford that we were forced to meet in public is very disappointing.”

He blasted the Government not enacting legislation to allow hybrid meetings to continue.

Particularly when they felt they could have rushed through legislation to stop a European Super League.”

Further he said not allowing hybrid meetings was a “step backwards in local democracy” because although members of the public had turned up to the St Paul’s Square venue, he said many more would have taken part online.

As the meeting started going in earnest, councillors and officers complained that they could not hear one another.

With his frustration growing Cllr Abbott added: “This will make even more of a mockery of what we are doing.

Things didn’t improve despite some tweaks with the sound system and Cllr Abbott politely blasted: “At the moment it’s ridiculous. Please will someone do something about the sound.”

After an exchange with vice-chair Cllr Abu Sultan (Lab, Cauldwell) he said: “Whilst I saw your lips move, I didn’t hear a word you said.

After dealing with one planning application, Cllr Abbott had clearly had enough.

Adjourning the meeting for 10 minutes he blasted: “It’s a mockery of the whole process and it’s testament to the lack of care the Government has for local councils. I am very very disappointed.”

Blaming the Government raised the hackles of Conservative Cllr Alison Foster (Harrold) who said: “I don’t think the Government can be blamed for the speakers in the hall.”

The sound was much improved after the enforced break, and the they completed all their business at 9pm when Cllr Abbott sent everyone home.

But he urged council officers to ensure that they had a “working sound system” for their next meeting. That has been scheduled for Monday, 21 June.