Bedford Corn Exchange by Gary Houston WikiCommons 20050921-012

Face to face meetings of Bedford Borough’s councillors are set to begin again next week after an absence of more than a year.

The Victorian age Corn Exchange, in St Paul’s Square, is more used to hosting music, comedy, and psychics in its main auditorium.

But on Monday (17 May 2021) it is set to witness all the drama of a socially distanced planning committee.

With 13 planning and five other items on the agenda when the meeting starts at 6.30pm it looks set to see the return of members of the public for the more contentious items.

Plans being considered include a council plan to provide short term accommodation for homeless people in Kingsway, and applications for 50 homes in Roxton and 48 in Great Barford.

The council has asked members of the public wishing to attend and speak to email so officers can make arrangements.

The council says a recording of the meeting will be available publicly “normally the next working day” for anyone interested in following the debates and voting results.

The Government had allowed councils across the country to meet virtually since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.

But since Friday, (7 May) this year councils in England have had to stop holding most remote meetings, a decision which met with fury across the country, including the borough.

A case was taken through the courts but judges said it was up to the government, which said it didn’t have the time to pass a law to allow it.

Whitehall is however consulting on allowing hybrid meetings to restart later in the year.

Councillors are concerned that social distancing measures won’t be lifted until possibly the end of June under the Prime Minister Borris Johnson’s coronavirus roadmap.

With no borough elections in Bedford this year, the council managed to bring forward the date of its annual meeting from 12 May 12 to 29 April.

Speaker Cllr Jane Walker (Cons, Clapham) was elected speaker for a second year with the hope that she will be able to represent the borough at events this year.

The leader of Bedford Council’s Lib Dem group, Cllr Christine McHugh (Goldington) said the situation was “utterly absurd“.

Cllr McHugh said: “It is utterly absurd that even at a time while indoor gatherings are still banned on public health grounds, councils can now no longer hold remote meetings.

Remote meetings have enabled safe participation in and access to meetings for residents, officers and elected representatives during the pandemic, which the government itself knows very well is not over.”

At the same time, councillors have pointed out that MPs have the right to participate in remote House of Commons proceedings remotely until at least 21 June 2021.