Virtual council meetings legislation will not be extended after 7 May
Date published: 29 March 2021
A screenshot of the Rochdale Council planning and licensing committee meeting held on Thursday 18 March
Emergency legislation brought in by the government regarding virtual council meetings will not be extended past 7 May.
The regulations – which last until Friday 7 May – enabled all local authority meetings to be held remotely during the pandemic to help councils deal with the challenges of holding in-person meetings.
The regulations required local authorities to allow members of the public to access meetings remotely, and they also removed the requirement for local authorities to hold an annual meeting in 2020.
Local Government Minister Luke Hall has written to all council leaders praising them for their extraordinary efforts during the pandemic, including ensuring vital council business was able to continue by adapting to virtual meetings at short notice last year.
He also confirmed that given the significant progress of the vaccination programme and the roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions, as well as current pressures on the legislative programme, the government has decided not to bring forward the primary legislation needed to extend the current regulations at this time.
In order to support councils, guidance has been updated to help them operate safely and securely, including using existing powers to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings deemed necessary.
Councils and members of the public are being encouraged to share their experiences via a call for evidence about how remote meetings have been used to inform any potential future legislation regarding their use beyond the pandemic. You can give your views here.
Councillor James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “This decision is extremely disappointing. The government’s own roadmap out of lockdown states that indoor gatherings or events - organised by a business, charity, public body or similar organisation - cannot be organised until 17 May at the earliest. Yet councils will be unable to hold remote meetings from 7 May. MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least 21 June but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same.
“The case is clear for the ability for councils to continue to be able to hold meetings flexibly. We urge the government to reverse this decision and not force councils to have to hold Covid-19 secure face-to-face council meetings until all restrictions are lifted.
“Holding face-to-face council meetings, with supporting staff, could easily involve up to 200 people in one room even before adding in members of the public and reporters. This is likely to be a significant challenge with councils, for example, having to source larger venues in order to be able to host meetings with social distancing measures in place, such as full council meetings which will need to be held following the May local elections.
“This also risks damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process.
“Left with no choice, Lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Services and Hertfordshire County Council have made an application to the Courts to declare that councils already have the powers needed to hold online meetings.
“The LGA will be providing support in these proceedings as the representative body for councils.”
Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government, Luke Hall said: “Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time.
“As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from 7 May are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way.
“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.”
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