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Know your place – there is no more space!

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County councillors concerned about the space available for meetings at the £18m New Shire Hall, Alconbury, will be recommended to either like it or lump it.

The multi-function room (renamed the Red Kite Room) drew criticism earlier this year.

 “It may be uncomfortable for members to have people very close to and behind them, especially where matters may be contentious,” said director of resources Tom Kelly.

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He felt that that changes would require “commissioning of specialist architectural and construction consultancy”.

But in a report to next week’s strategy and resources committee, officers say that a more recent meeting, in July, had few issues and no major recommendations for improvement are being offered.

The report says previously the key issues had been identified:

1: Security and safety of members and officers.

2: Limited space for councillors, the media, and public attendees.

3: Accessibility and fire and safety evacuation.

4: The proximity of the public to members near the public gallery; the lack of physical demarcation between member and public areas was considered to pose risks to personnel and the running of meetings in the event of disruptive behaviour.

Officials say security reviews and risk assessment, including liaison with Cambridgeshire police was undertaken.

“In order to create a physical and psychological ‘gap’ between members (who were sat with their backs to the public gallery) screens have been purchased and installed,” says the report.

“These were used at full council on 19 July and are judged to provide suitable separation for full council meetings.

“In accordance with existing council protocols all public meetings are risk assessed.

“If a meeting is deemed to be contentious and/or may result in, for example, high numbers of public attendees beyond the room’s capacity or potential for protest or disruption, the democratic services and property teams will make recommendations in respect of the suitability and operation of the venue for that specific event.

“Where the risk profile means that the Red Kite Room (RKR) is not suitable alternative venues will be considered.”

Officers felt no problems were identified or adverse feedback received from the July meeting about the space and accommodation for members in the room.

“As a result of pre-planned absences/leave and unplanned self-isolations, the July meeting had fewer than all 61 members in attendance,” says the report.

“The room has been previously set up to accommodate all members of the council and there will be sufficient space on that basis, as designed.”

Officials agree there are limitations on space for the media and public.

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But they feel that with live streaming of meetings, “it is assumed that the requirement for in-person attendance may be lower than previously, however this will continue to be monitored”.

The council has also undertaken an accessibility and fire risk review.

“Due to the building configuration, there is a currently a limit of four wheelchair users in the RKR during public meetings,” says the report.

“This is irrespective of whether a councillor or member of the public and reflects the requirements for an effective evacuation of the room, if required.

“Where numbers exceed this then the council will manage the requirements and facilitate in accordance with democratic and statutory requirements.”

The report adds: “Were the number of councillors or officers using wheelchairs likely to exceed four then this would become challenging.”

Councillors will be advised that regulations require decision making meetings to be open to the public.

If necessary “arrangements can be made elsewhere on site for the meeting to be live streamed”.

The reports believe the council to be well placed to make reasonable adjustments to ensure the necessary public access or foresee where alternative arrangements or one-off venues might be required for contingencies.

In conclusion officers believe the RKR is capable of being used for full council subject to limitations and dependent on other reviews undertaken.

“A number of alternative venues have either previously been used before for full council during the COVID pandemic or have been investigated for use,” says the report.

Council chairman Stephen Ferguson outside New Shire Hall, Alconbury

“None of these has offered any significant advantage in terms of either accessibility or capacity.

“All of the alternative venues considered would incur additional costs to the council to hire and install necessary equipment as well as to deploy staff time to set up the meetings away from New Shire Hall.”

New Shire Hall was built to allow for 20 members of the public, a reduction from the 26 at the old Shire Hall.  

Finance director Tom Kelly admitted earlier this year: “There are limitations of the location and numbers of those with limited mobility attending meetings.  

“Space limitations mean that the full council configuration can only accommodate a very small number of mobility impaired members.” 

And because the room is on the first floor, “this also imposes limitations on the number of members of the public with physical impairments who can attend meetings”. 

Deputy leader Elisa Meschini said earlier this year: “We can’t start off in a new headquarters by saying there is no room for more than a handful of people with physical disabilities to attend our major democratic meeting.” 

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