Legislation allowing virtual council meetings will ‘not be extended’
The legislation for remote council meetings is set to end on 6 May 2021. And the earliest date when the roadmap out of lockdown would allow organised indoor gatherings or events is 17 May 2021. This means both Bedford Borough Council (12 May) or Central Bedfordshire Council (13 May) annual meeting are in limbo.
Like businesses and other organisations throughout the UK, local councils have held their meetings online due to the pandemic and restrictions on public meetings.
This followed the passing of emergency legislation by the government, which gave council the power to do business over video conferencing tools.
Before this legislation was passed, decisions in the early days of the first lockdown were delegated to key individuals, such as a head of paid service, or to single council members without holding meetings.
The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 came into force on 4 April 2020.
It gave councils the power to hold remote meetings up to the local elections on 6 May 2021.
In a letter (dated 25 March 2021) to local authorities, Luke Hall, the minister for regional growth and local government, praised the efforts of local authorities in England, saying they had “risen magnificently to the challenges of this period“.
But he said extending virtual meetings past the data set in these Regulations would involve primary legislation in the Commons, which would include a “significant impact” on the Government’s legislative programme which he said “is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times“.
On 22 February, the government published its Roadmap Out of Lockdown. This said that indoor gatherings or events – organised by a business, charity, public body or similar organisation – cannot be organised until May 17 at the earliest.
In a statement published on the Local Government Association (LGA) website, 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.”
Cllr Jamieson added that 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.
Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Councils were asked how decisions will be made after 6 May, whether the full council meetings will be pulled forward and if the public will be able to attend meetings after 17 May.
A Bedford Borough Council spokesperson said:
“We are aware of the Government’s decision to end the holding of virtual Council meetings from 7 May. We are reviewing our options to ensure we can continue to hold open and transparent meetings, while keeping members, officers and the public safe.
“Further information will be on our website closer to the time.”
Central Bedfordshire Council did not respond.
Although the government has decided not to extend the legislation, it has also launched a call for evidence to gather views on the use of the remote meetings arrangements and the pros and cons of making express provision permanent, in whole or in part, for local authorities in England.