Government brings in new laws that allows councils to meet ‘virtually’

Owl posts two articles under this heading. The first is a general one on how the democratic process can continue safely, the second is the advice from Civic Voice to amenity societies on how this might affect planning. 

Daniel Clark  www.devonlive.com

New laws that enable local authorities in England to hold public meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology come into effect from Saturday.

The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

This will enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive.

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.

It means all councils – from Devon County down to the parish councils – can continue to meet, and also applies to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities, the Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, as well as the Police and Crime Panel,

All meetings must still be made accessible for the public and the press to ‘attend’, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.

Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.

The Regulations apply to meetings taking place before May 7, 2021, but this date could be moved forward if medical and scientific advice leads to the relaxation of social distancing rules.

Devon County Council’s cabinet are set to meet on Wednesday, April 8, via videolink. The Exeter City Council executive meeting the night beforehand is currently still listed as taking place in the Civic Centre as usual.

Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said: “Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.

“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.

“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.

“We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6 billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time.”

Local Government Association Chairman, Cllr James Jamieson added: “Councils are working tirelessly to support their communities as they rise to the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus crisis.

“Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.

“Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives.”

The government is also working to bring in new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before 6 May 2021.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed local and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for Thursday 7 May 2020 until 6 May 2021.

Here is what Civic Voice have to say on how this might affect planning and advice to amenity societies

civicvoiceblog.wordpress.com 

Local authorities in England handed new powers to hold planning meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology from April 4th

We understand that some civic societies and community groups are concerned about the implications of COVID19 and how this will impact the planning system in regard to Local Authorities processing planning applications.

In the same way that civic societies are saying that they are experiencing challenges in meeting face-to-face, we should not be surprised that this is also the case for councils.

So what is being done about this?

The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic. This will enable councils to continue to make decisions during the current crisis.

Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the relevant national authority to make regulations providing for virtual meetings in local authorities, including the Greater London Authority, district, county and unitary councils, parish councils and national park authorities.

The Regulations apply to meetings held, or required to be held, before 7th May 2021.

Does this affect Planning Committee Meetings?

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.

Anticipating the impact of the current emergency on the planning system, the Chief Planner’s recent ‘Planning Update‘ advised on how councils could respond to ensure that the planning system could operate.

 ” The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue.”

Chief Planner, Steve Quartermain

The Government has indeed introduced this legislation and local Councils can now legally hold online only council meetings.  It comes into force on April 4th http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/392/contents/made.

What do civic societies need to know?

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including planning meetings.

Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.

Government will be working with others to developing guidance for local authorities about holding remote meetings.

Will the public will still have access to public meetings through remote means?

There are still some practical concerns about how these meetings will be hosted, and in particular the manner in which members of the public will be able to participate, but meetings must remain accessible whilst ensuring that councillors, staff and the wider public are able to follow government advice. We will see how this works through in practice.

The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.

An authority would have to make its own decision if it was going to cut back on public attendance and we would ask civic societies to inform us where this happens.

The regulations say:

  • Live webcast of meeting is enough to comply with new rules re press and public: “(9A) In this Act, references to—
    • (a)a meeting being “open to the public” includes access to the meeting through remote means including video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming
  • Where a meeting is accessible to the public through such remote means the meeting is open to the public whether or not members of the public are able to attend the meeting in person;
    • (a)any reference to being “present” at a meeting includes being present through remote attendance;
    • (b)any reference to a “place” where a meeting is held, or to be held, includes reference to more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers;

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/392/regulation/13/made

Impact for civic societies and community groups?

We don’t know how this situation is going to work out.  It could be that more applications are delegated to officers or it could be that planning committees are unable to meet due to lack of IT skills for some councillors, or that meetings could be held virtually without public participation. What about controversial applications? How will they be dealt?

It is important that you get in touch with your local planning authority to let them know that you want to participate. Being a formal constituted group may well make it easier for the council to engage with you.