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Blaenau Gwent councillors to look into options for new chamber

The now demolished Civic Centre in Ebbw Vale. The former headquarters of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council

BLAENAU GWENT councillors have agreed to set up a working group of councillors to look into options to find a new council chamber.

But the group will need to have a wide ranging remit to look at all the issues surrounding the options and costs for a new chamber.

It was also suggested that staff and union representatives might also need to be part of the group.

Four years ago, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic staff and councillors left the Civic Centre, the council headquarters in Ebbw Vale, never to return.

The building including the council chamber has since been demolished to make way for a future housing development.

The council’s headquarters is now on the first floor of the General Offices (GO) in Ebbw Vale.

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The need for a new physical council chamber was debated at a Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council meeting on Thursday, March 21.

The possibility of looking for a new venue for physical council meeting has been put forward after Aneurin Bevan University Health Board vacated a room in GO that could be big enough to host full council meetings.

Since 2020 the health board has used the room as a mass vaccination centre for Covid-19, Independent group deputy leader Cllr Wayne Hodgins raised concerns that the council’s medium term financial strategy is based on renting out rooms at the GO which could provide £60,000 to £70,000 in rental fees annually.

Despite this he still advocated for “face to face” meetings for big council issues as he believed them to be “more productive.”

Cllr Hodgins said:  “I have adapted to online meetings but on big ticket items I think face to face with the officers can be more productive.

Labour’s Cllr Lisa Winnett reminded councillors that meetings now have to be hybrid and include the online and face to face options.

She added and that nether councillors or staff or could be “dictated” to attend meetings in person.

“It has to be a mix and we have to be mindful of that,” said Cllr Winnett.

Council leader Labour’s Cllr Steve Thomas said: “We can’t go back to the old days and members need to get that, we can’t tell someone to attend as a member or staff and we need to work within the law.”

Cabinet member for education. Labour’s Cllr Sue Edmunds said that member of the public would also need to be “taken into account” in any future proposals, as they should also be allowed to attend face to face meetings.

Independent group’s Cllr Julie Holt pointed out that when given the option of attending meetings remotely or have a hybrid meeting with some face to face in the GO, councillors opted for online.

She pointed out that a room had been kitted out for hybrid meetings – but there was: “no appetite from some people to ever attend” in person meetings for a number of reasons.

“It’s sad we’ve got to the point of never actually meeting anyone,” said Cllr Holt.

Newly elected Independent, Cllr Jonathan Millard said that alternative building “such as school” should also be considered.

Cllr Millard said: “There is a lot of opportunity here to make us more open and accessible and it should not be narrowed down to being just in one building.”

Earlier this month, the proposal to establish a working group had been discussed by the Democratic Services committee.

Democratic Services committee chairman, Cllr John Hill said: “The scope of this working group needs to be wide, there a pros and cons and a wide discussion needs to be had.”

“It’s important on the working group you get a mix of people who want it and don’t want it and we know who they are.

“We need a mix otherwise you’ll get a biased outcome.”

Cllr Thomas agreed and believed that Cllr Hill should chair the working group.

Councillors then went ahead and voted unanimously to set up the group.

A further discussion between Cllr Hill, Cllr Thomas and Cllr Joanna Wilkins leader of the Independent group will take place soon to pick councillors to be part of the working group.

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