Attendance at Cumbria County Council meetings has dropped – and some councillors attended just a fraction of the meetings they should have, the News & Star can reveal.

Ill health, demanding day jobs and a return to in-person meetings have contributed to declining attendance rates in the county’s council chambers.

Councillors have now joined growing calls for a return to remote meetings in an effort to make local politics more accessible.

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Over a year, just 11 out of 84 councillors – four Conservatives, five Labour politicians and two Liberal Democrats – were present at every meeting they were expected to attend.

N&S analysis of Cumbria County Council data found councillors missed almost a fifth of their scheduled meetings in the year to July.

News and Star: Cumbria House, the headquarters of Cumbria County Council. Photo: STUART WALKER

That’s a significant drop on the year before, when the temporary introduction of virtual meetings saw councillors attend more than nine in ten.

And at 82%, it’s also a slight fall from 2019-20, when the overall attendance rate across the council chamber was 85%.

For some individual councillors, the decline in attendance has been more stark.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Brenda Gray, for example, attended 15 out of her 17 meetings when they could be accessed remotely – but this year, she had the lowest rate of all councillors and was present at just five out of 19.

The attendance of Labour’s Cllr Claire Driver also dropped and saw her present at five out of 12 meetings, compared to 19 out of 20 the year before.

Independent Sol Wielkopolski said a battle with Covid-19 had contributed to him attending just three meetings over the course of a year.

News and Star: Claire Driver, Cumbria County Councillor for Alston and East Fellside

Cllr Claire Driver

Cllr Wielkopolski and Cllr Driver have joined growing calls to make council meetings more accessible for all.

Last month, the Local Government Association, which represents councils, urged the Government to allow local authorities to decide whether to hold meetings in person or remotely.

A spokesperson said a forced return to in-person meetings resulted in increased costs on “already stretched budgets” and reduced participation.

He said there had been successful adaptation to virtual and hybrid working during the pandemic and said continuing that would allow councils to work “in the most accessible and resilient way”.

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Cllr Wielkopolski said he supported a return to remote meetings as it would make them more accessible in times of ill health, and would cut down on lengthy journeys to and from the council chamber.

Cllr Driver said there was a definite need to enhance accessibility and make local politics more appealing to those of working age, parents and disabled people.

Cllr Driver added: “I’ve grown up in the area I represent and want to get good things done.

“But It’s a very difficult balance for councillors who need to be working – you have to be very accessible, committed and willing to curtail your own life.

“It’s a horrible feeling knowing I’ve not been making it to all of the meetings but I do try to stay in the loop.”

She said she had carried out a lot of work outside of the council chamber, adding: “Elected people are still members of the community with the same pressures and facing the same challenges as everyone else.”

If a councillor fails to attend any meetings in a six-month period, they cease to be a member – but this can be extended for reasons including ill health.

Councils cannot hold virtual meetings under existing legislation, with change dependent upon Parliamentary agreement.

A Government spokeswoman said it recognised some councils would like the choice of meeting remotely, adding that it would soon publish a response to a call for evidence on the subject.

The figures do not include meetings attended where the councillor’s presence was not required.