COUNCILLORS could return to face-to-face meetings later this month – more than three years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meetings of East Lothian Council and its various committe have convened online since March 17, 2020.

Much-needed £600,000 renovations and repairs to the the local authority’s traditional location for public meetings, Haddington Town House, have now been carried out and a “hybrid” meeting system has been installed in the council chamber on the ground floor.

Despite the pending return of council meetings in the building, non-council groups will still not be able to use the premises.

A spokeswoman for the local authority told the Courier that testing was being carried on the new hybrid meeting technology, which will allow people to watch the meetings from home and allow council representatives the option of taking part in the meetings, via video call, without being in the chambers.

It is hoped that such meetings could resume either later this month or early in October.

A desk previously used by journalists to report from council meetings will no longer be available to the press as the council says the space is needed to house the new hybrid kit.

But the council spokesperson stressed that both the press and the public would still be able to attend meetings in person, subject, “as was always the case, to the limits of space”.

A report to council in November 2021 noted that the hybrid system would bring “a number of significant benefits”.

It said: “These benefits include: the freedom and personal preference to choose how to participate in meetings; reduced travel time and travel costs; convenience for participants who have other commitments away from the council chamber; more effective use of officers’ time as some officers only need to be present at the meeting for the duration of their own report; and the fact that hybrid meetings offer a good compromise between face-to-face meetings and remote meetings.

“The live streaming of meetings has been well received and has increased the transparency and accessibility of the council’s formal decision-making processes for the public.

“It is anticipated that live streaming will continue if hybrid meetings are implemented and the system will accommodate the online participation of members of the public where appropriate, e.g. planning committee.”

In terms of cost, the report added: “The ongoing annual cost of this solution, and the establishment of a new post, are likely to be in the region of £80,000 per annum.

“These figures are subject to verification if approval to engage with the supplier is given.

“It is anticipated that the new system would be leased, rather than purchased, to ensure the council can benefit from any improvements to functionality and technology in this area over the next few years.”