During the pandemic local Councils have been permitted to hold formal meetings online, enabling them to carry on Council business through lockdowns and other restrictions. This has brought more flexibility and improved accessibility for both councillors and residents, with representatives being able to work more efficiently. After the Government announced that this legislation will be withdrawn, judgement in the High Court has now confirmed that local councils will not be able to meet virtually after 7th May.
Local councils across the country have worked hard to ensure that virtual meetings are accessible and inclusive, with many examples of increased public participation since their inception. 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 existing regulations will see most City of York Council meetings now take place with a smaller number of representatives to accommodate necessary safety requirements, as the roadmap evolves, whilst scrutiny and other non-decision making meetings will remain virtual.
Earlier in March Councillor Keith Aspden joined some 90 Lib Dem Council Leaders and Opposition Leaders in writing open letter to Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and to Luke Hall MP, Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government, to urge them to pass legislation which would enable the flexibility for councils to continue with remote and hybrid meetings.
Councillor Ashley Mason, Liberal Democrat Councillor for Dringhouses and Woodthorpe, commented:
“Virtual meetings have improved accessibility and flexibility of the democratic process, allowing more councillors as well as members of the public to participate in local day to day running of the city. For myself and many of my colleagues who have work or caring responsibilities outside of the Council, virtual meetings have meant we can work more effectively and balance the many responsibilities that local representatives have.
“This flexibility has allowed us to work more efficiently. Just as local businesses who are now looking at ways to maximise this efficiency within their new working arrangements, local councils should be able to take the opportunity to make their work fit for the 21st century.
“This judgement and Government’s lack of engagement and urgency over this issue is extremely disappointing. The necessary legislation should be brought forward as soon as possible to overcome this impasse and ensure that councils have local choice and flexibility to determine the methodology by which meetings can take place. Not just during the pandemic, but for the long term to continue the flexibility, transparency and accessibility that including remote meetings have allowed.”