No more virtual council meetings be back in person, councillors told

  Posted: 30.04.21 at 18:02 by By Adam Postans and Stephen Sumner

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Council leaders have slated the Government as “lamentable” and “discriminatory” after a High Court ruling dashed last-ditch hopes of continuing remote public meetings.

Virtual proceedings, which created viral moments such as the infamous Handforth Parish Council bust-up chaired by Jackie Weaver, have been in operation throughout the pandemic to keep local authority business running.

Last month the Government stunned civic chiefs by announcing that the emergency legislation that has allowed them to take place would not be extended beyond Thursday, May 6, the day of the local elections, so councillors would then have to attend committees in person.

The decision was widely criticised cross-party as “negligent” and “ludicrous” when the coronavirus crisis is far from over.

Now High Court judges have dismissed a legal challenge by an alliance of local government officers and lawyers who argued councils could use existing powers to meet virtually, so there was no need to extend the legislation.

But judges decided a “physical presence” was required at meetings

Reacting to the ruling, North Somerset Council’s independent leader Cllr Don Davies said: “The Government’s approach has been lamentable.

“They could have let us decide this for ourselves.

“Virtual meetings have increased attendance and resident involvement.

“It’s incredibly discriminatory to ask people to come to Weston from Long Ashton. It’s a 50-mile round trip. It’s appalling.”

Deputy leader Lib Dem Cllr Mike Bell said: “Some of our committees have 20 members. Add officers and members of the public and it’s not practical, even in our largest council chamber, to hold meetings safely.

“Even if the Government lifts the restrictions in June, do we really want 100 people packed together in a poorly ventilated room?

“In the longer term we need hybrid solutions. Councils need the freedom and flexibility to deliver them.

“It would be absurd in other sectors of society for government to dictate how they meet.

“It’s bizarre that local councils shouldn’t be free to make their arrangements according to local need.”

The judicial review was brought by the Association of Democratic Services Officers, Lawyers in Local Government and Hertfordshire County Council.

In a letter to councils on Thursday (April 29) announcing the implications of the ruling, Local Government Minister and Thornbury & Yate MP Luke Hall said they should “prepare accordingly” to return to in-person meetings after Thursday, May 6.

He said: “I recognise there may continue to be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings.

“Ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the Covid-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely, but the Government has published updated guidance to highlight ways in which councils can, if necessary, minimise the need for, or risks of, face-to-face meetings.

“I am also encouraged by the continued success of the vaccination programme and the progress through each of the steps of the Government’s Roadmap.

“By May 17 it is anticipated that a much greater range of indoor activity can resume and you should consider the extent to which meetings can operate on the same basis as other local institutions in your area, taking into account your individual circumstances and requirements.”

He asked councils to contribute to the Government’s “call for evidence” on the use of remote meetings, which could shape future legislation.

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