Controversial plans for 37 homes on a field in Bath could have been thrown out if a councillor’s broadband was more reliable.
Councillors can be barred from voting if they do not hear a debate in full, so when Eleanor Jackson’s internet cut out, she was unable to participate.
Her claim that the decision on plans submitted by Bath and North East Somerset Council could have gone the other way came as the authority debated the future of online meetings.
With temporary regulations coming to an end on 7th May, Cllr Jess David led calls for virtual meetings to continue, saying they are good for democracy.
The Liberal Democrats were accused of a political stunt, with independents saying the issue was raised with a government minister four months ago.
Cllr Jackson told the full council meeting on 25th March: “If you miss any part of the presentation as far as the decision on a particular planning application you cannot vote.
“It happened to me with the crucial Englishcombe Lane tufa application in the summer – I lost connectivity for about 10 minutes. I could not vote.
“Had I voted it might very well have been a different outcome on that application. It’s intensely frustrating when you crash out in those circumstances.”
Plans for the site, home to rare habitats called tufas, were approved by five votes to four against in August last year despite concerns from the council’s ecologist.
Cllr Jackson said at the time: “We have to improve the technology. I know it wouldn’t have made any difference to the debate because you [planning committee chair Matt McCabe] would have used your casting vote as chair in favour of this one, but the fact I lost connection and couldn’t get the right phone number to get back on again I regret very much.
“We have to do something to improve our connections if we’re going to hold meetings like this in the future.”
Clrl David said virtual or hybrid meetings allow more residents to participate in democracy, as it makes standing for election more accessible to people with full-time jobs, caring responsibilities or disabilities.
She said it was not clear if remote meetings will be able to continue after the regulations expire, despite social distancing being set to continue until at least 21st June, under the government’s lockdown road map. Large indoor gatherings are banned until 17th May at the earliest.
Cllr Steve Hedges said: “I’m one of the local councillors that has to shield. If they decide on May 6 to end it, it will mean for me that I can no longer attend full council meetings – not because I don’t want to but because they’ve taken my effective right away from doing that via the medium we’re doing it now.”
Cllr Dr Kumar said virtual meetings had saved councillors time commuting, given them a better work-life balance and reduced their carbon footprint.
But Labour councillor Grant Johnson said the Lib Dem motion was “tokenistic” and tougher action was needed to tackle the climate emergency than preventing 59 councillors driving to the Guildhall.
Meanwhile, independent group leader Karen Walker dismissed the motion as a publicity stunt by the ruling group.
She said after writing to all councillors in December, a letter was sent to local government minister Luke Hall asking for assurance that virtual meetings would continue.
Mr Hall has since said in a letter to council leaders that remote access should continue to be provided to members of the public until 21st June.
“I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option,” he said.
Local Government Association chairman James Jamieson said the case is clear for the ability for councils to continue to be able to hold meetings flexibly.
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter