Councils will have to resume holding meetings in-person

The Council Chamber in Blackdown House is long and narrow – so Owl wonders whether the only way to achieve social distancing is to put the Tories in an ante-chamber somewhere? In 2019 the opposition was relegated to the back row anyway from where it is quite hard to engage effectively with the meeting. Do we count this as an “Own Goal”?

Here is the view of Tim Todd in his June 2019 FOI entitled: “What thought went into the design of the debating chamber at the new EDDC HQ and its suitability for participation by the public?”

Along with a fair number of members of the public, I attended the first council meeting under the new intake of councillors in May. Even arriving early I found that there was no room to accommodate me and a number of other members of the public, we had to use a less than satisfactory gallery with a restricted view of the participants. We also had to put up with broadcast information and missed out on all that was said when speakers forgot to use the microphones. Being quite separate from councillors and others, we were not readily able to have conversations with others on matters that may have been relevant and could have been raised by our representatives.

I gather from some in the small chamber downstairs, and from social media, that many were less than impressed and some felt the design and construction did not give due weight to public engagement in council matters in their public meetings, that the council has failed in its duty to provide adequate facilities or encourage participation.

Jackie Weaver’s view on abandoning virtual meetings is posted separately.

Daniel Clark 

Legislation that has allowed councils and local authorities to meet virtually during the last year throughout the coronavirus pandemic will not be extended.

Last April, the Government introduced emergency legislation to relax the requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person, with the regulations applying to all meetings taking place before May 7, 2021.

But on Thursday night, it was confirmed the Government have decided that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue and that the successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7.

It means that from May 7 onwards, all councils – from Devon County down to the parish councils – will have to resume meetings in person, 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.

Councils though are being encouraged to continue to live stream the meetings to meet the legal obligation to ensure that the members of the public and press can access the meeting without having to physically attend.

Luke Hall MP, Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government, in his letter to councils, said: “Extending the regulations to meetings beyond May 7 would require primary legislation. The Government has considered the case for legislation very carefully, including the significant impact it would have on the Government’s legislative programme which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times.

“We are also mindful of the excellent progress that has been made on our vaccination programme and the announcement of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions. Given this context, the Government has concluded that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time.

“As outlined in the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 Response, our aim is for everyone aged 50 and over and people with underlying health conditions to have been offered a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by April 15, and a second dose by mid-July.

“While local authorities have been able to hold meetings in person at any time during the pandemic with appropriate measures in place, the successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7, as reflected in the Government’s plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions over the coming months.”

Mr Hall said that he recognised there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings, but that ‘ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the Covid-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely’.

He added: “If your council is concerned about holding physical meetings you may want to consider resuming these after May 17, at which point it is anticipated that a much greater range of indoor activity can resume in line with the roadmap, such as allowing up to 1,000 people to attend performances or sporting events in indoor venues, or up to half-capacity (whichever is lower).

“While you do have a legal obligation to ensure that the members of the public can access most of your meetings, I would encourage you to continue to provide remote access to minimise the need for the public to attend meetings physically until at least June 21, at which point it is anticipated that all restrictions on indoor gatherings will have been lifted in line with the Roadmap.”

But responding to the announcement that emergency legislation allowing virtual council meetings will not be extended, Cllr 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 May 17 at the earliest. Yet councils will be unable to hold remote meetings from May 7.

“MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least June 21 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.”

Mr Hall said that councils who are not subject to elections could consider conducting their annual meetings prior to May 7, and therefore do so remotely while the express provision in current regulations apply, but for councils were elections are taking place, this is not possible, and after a new elections, an annual council meeting has to take place within 21 days of the election, so Devon County Council will have to allow 60 councillors to meet in person.

A Devon County Council spokesman said: “This decision presents all local authorities with a complex challenge in deciding how best to hold face-to face council meetings safely after May 7.

“We will be looking very carefully at the detail of the new guidance before considering the best approach for the County Council.”