BOARDROOMS and council chambers have been powerful platforms for centuries.

Designed to stimulate discussion and debate, they have witnessed many a big decision in both business and politics.

And they’ve been essential, for where else would key members of a committee, and their esteemed guests, gather for such debate?

Even in Tynedale’s smallest communities, village halls and WI buildings have acted as essential venues for parish council meetings.

But all of that has gone out of the window during a year like no other. The coronavirus outbreak has changed many aspects of everyday life, with gatherings prohibited.

When the members of Hexham Town Council hosted their latest monthly meeting on December 14, they hadn’t sat in the same room together for 10 months.

Yet in most cases they had done so virtually, with members logging into electronic video meetings from their own homes.

It has become the norm, which led the Mayor of Hexham, Coun. Bob Hull, to sign off on a note nobody would have expected to hear a year earlier.

“It will be interesting to see if people want to continue with this beyond the end of the pandemic?”

Coun. Hull wask talking specifically about the use of Zoom, one of many video conferencing services which have been relied upon by many organisations more than ever in 2020.

“This has been a challenging year for the council,” he added. “I want to pay tribute to you all for your work over the past 12 months in trying circumstances. I hope we have worked fairly seemlessly and efficiently during this period.”

Coun. Hull’s words begged the question - could video conferences really be a long term successor to traditional face-to-face meetings?

Surely not is the general gut reaction, but the case for such virtual conferences to continue is growing stronger.

Back in March, many people had never used such services, and in some cases, had never even heard of them.

Despite technical glitches which remain, including screen freezing, buffering, and incorrect use of the mute option, there are many benefits of online meetings.

They enable people to join together in a group discussion from the safety of their own homes.

Hexham town councillor Derek Kennedy, who represents Hexham West on Northumberland County Council, has attended meetings in council chambers since he started out in local politics in 2002.

Coun. Kennedy said: "When you think about it, businesses have used this type of video conferencing for quite some time to good effect.

"It has taken councils longer, but it is here now and I think local councillors and members of the public deserve credit for the way they have adapted.

"Even with the vaccine, it's going to be a fair amount of time before we would be allowed to go back to what was the norm. Online meetings are certainly going to be essential in the coming months, and in the long term, I can potentially see a hybrid-type system where some people are located within a meeting venue, while others are logging on to attend virtually."

Away from business and politics, such platforms have been essential for families to communicate this year. Due to self isolation and shielding, some people have endured months without seeing their loved ones in the flesh. Technology has provided a lifeline.