£20,000 spend for new digital system in Derry Road council chamber

COUNCILLORS have approved a potential spend of £20,000 to modify the chamber at council's Strabane offices.

A report brought before members of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee sought endorsement the spend for proposed changes to facilities in the Derry Road chamber "to facilitate the safe operation of council committee meetings, whilst COVID is a public health risk."

From its inception in 2015, Derry City and Strabane District Council has had in place a system of rotating customer/public facing committee meetings between the Guildhall chamber and the Strabane chamber "so as to promote accessibility and inclusivity across the council area".

Since the beginning of COVID it has not been possible to hold the normal programme of committee meetings at the Strabane venue due to social distancing requirements and lack of digital infrastructure for the broadcasting of meetings.

Instead, , committee and full council meetings have been held in a hybrid format with some councillors attending in person at the Guidlhall with others tuning in remotely via Webex, with the meetings broadcast live on the council's YouTube channel.

At a meeting in January this year, it was agreed to begin a move back to rotating committee meetings between the two chambers - but this will require the purchase of a new digital system and the necessary modifications.

In the report, Ellen Cavanagh. lead Democratic Services and improvement officer, said: "It is noted that in order to facilitate the safe operation of the Derry Road chamber, in the context of COVID, physical modifications will be required within the chamber.

"A scoping exercise was conducted which identified the need for additional seating places and new audio and visual technologies.

"Subsequently, a number of options were explored by the Digital Services manager from looking at mobile microphones, wireless systems, fixed camera systems to a system providing a comparable service to that available in the Guildhall chamber.

"A number of these options were deemed not to be workable solutions and the preferred way forward is the procurement of a system that provides a comparable service to that available in the Guildhall chamber."

Councillors were told "indicative costings" for the procurement of a system that provides a service comparable to that available in the Guildhall are in the region of £20,000, although any purchase would be subject to a full tender exercise.

"It is considered that such expenditure could be secured via a COVID funding stream, " the officer added.

The recommended was agreed and will be subject to ratification at the full monthly meeting of the authority.

Meanwhile, a proposal to open up the same council offices to enable remote working for local civil servants, has been given the green light.

Councillors have agreed to explore the potential of utilising the Strabane offices after the Department of Finance determined that Strabane was not a suitable location for the roll-out of ten Connect2 Hubs, which aim to transform how civil servants work enabling them to be based closer to home, reducing travel time and lowering carbon emissions.

Sinn Féin's Ruairí McHugh has welcomed the moved.

“In September 2020, I secured the support of council for my motion calling upon the Assembly Executive to prioritise the development of localised ‘working hubs’ as part of the economic recovery emerging from COVID and asking that we become a pilot area for the roll-out of this new way of working," he said.

“At the time of my motion, I also highlighted the multiple benefits of such hubs including how they would improve the life/work balance; reduce unnecessary journeys/commute times/traffic congestion/carbon omissions and pollution as well as help to facilitate ‘natural’ decentralisation and redress infrastructural deficit.

“The spiralling costs of petrol and diesel have now further re-enforced the benefit of such local hubs."

In view of the department's Connect2 Hubs initiative, council is now actively exploring how it can develop the opportunity for locally-based civil servants to work from the Derry Road council offices.

“Officers are currently identifying available space, IT requirements and any additional costs that may be incurred," councillor McHugh continued.

“Officers will then work closely with NICS to stimulate further demand for jobs in the Strabane area and promote the benefit of the hub.

“A further paper will be presented at a future (Business and Culture) committee with fully costed projections to provide the Civil Service remote working option in the council offices.

“I look forward to the proposal now being progressed as quickly as possible and hopefully this local pilot hub can be then adopted as a template of a new way of working for other departments/agencies in the public sector and companies in the private sector going forward.”

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