The High Court today ruled that virtual meetings of Local Authorities will not be permitted beyond 7 May 2021, to the wide disbelief and dismay of many councillors across the country, especially those with small premises which can’t accommodate social distancing, and COVID-hit budgets that really don’t need to be stretched to funding larger facilities externally. The Court is yet to give its view on whether a meeting is ‘open to the public’ or ‘held in public’ if the public is only able to attend virtually*.
The Local Government Association released this statement: ‘It is very disappointing that this last avenue to allow councils to hold online and hybrid meetings whilst COVID-19 restrictions are still in force has not been successful. Councils by law, have to hold annual meetings within 21 days following local elections, so many will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person.’
What to expect
To accommodate the COVID-19 risk, Councils are expected to:
- Complete an additional risk assessment
- Ensure meetings, and the opening of Council buildings, comply with public health, hygiene, track & trace and social distancing guidance as well as safe workplace guidelines and any localised regulations
No surprises there. But, if anecdotes are to be believed (and there’s no reason they shouldn’t) Councils are already considering options (or ‘workarounds’) to ensure in-person meetings are safe(r), such as:
- Stalling meetings until the next easing of regulations on 17 May
- Continuing to provide remote access to the public to minimise the need for the public to attend meetings physically until at least 21 June (although see * point in first paragraph)
- Minimising the number of meetings held, and granting delegated powers to officers where it facilitates a slimmed-down calendar
- Reducing member attendance by reducing the size of committees, which is possible at Annual Council (and it is Annual Council season)
- Reducing member attendance by mutual agreement between political groups, in which they each send a proportionate number of representatives to ensure the existing balance of representation is upheld
- Holding hybrid meetings with agreed ‘impartial’ members providing the quorum in the room, and other members attending virtually to contribute views and influence the quorum’s voting
- Holding virtual pre-meetings attended by all executives, then vesting executive powers with the Leader or elected Mayor to take all executive decisions ‘in person’ at official meetings
- Holding virtual quasi-meetings in which members give an ‘in principle’ decision and officers subsequently ‘decide’ (on their own in a room, presumably)
There are sillier suggestions, as you can imagine. But the swiftness of these workarounds serves to highlight how unworkable many feel (often justifiably) this ruling is. It will be interesting to see what materialises in practice. Regardless, we’re just a little bit sad at the loss of the prospect of more viral-heroes like Jackie Weaver to brighten our day.