More than four-fifths of councils (83%) have said they would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings remotely once the coronavirus emergency is over and assuming they have the power to do so, research by the Local Government Association has found.
A similar percentage (79%) also said they would be very likely or fairly likely to hold hybrid meetings with a mixture of remote and in person attendance.
The findings of the LGA’s ‘temperature check’ came as the Divisional Court, comprising the President of the Queen’s Bench Division (Dame Victoria Sharp) and Mr Justice Chamberlain, today (21 April) heard the application by LLG, ADSO and Hertfordshire County Council for court declarations that the Local Government Act 1972 already allows councils to continue to hold remote meetings.
The LGA and NALC, the National Association of Local Councils, were interested parties in the High Court proceedings, backing the stance taken by ADSO, LLG and Hertfordshire CC.
If LLG, ADSO and Hertfordshire CC are unsuccessful, councils in England will have to return to in person meetings from 7 May. This is the date when the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, which were brought in shortly after the beginning of the first lockdown, expire.
Other findings of the LGA’s survey of monitoring officers included:
- Every council that responded to the temperature check said they had made use of powers to hold public meetings remotely during the coronavirus emergency.
- All councils that gave a view said that they thought powers to hold public meeting remotely should continue to be available, whether or not their council intended to use these powers.
- Virtual meetings were described as having worked well throughout the pandemic by nearly all respondents, and as positively benefitting local democracy in a variety of ways.
- Any attempt to remove the ability of councils to decide for themselves how to run meetings was viewed as a retrograde step by nearly all respondents who stated their support and the importance of and for councils to retain the choice and ability to decide whether to run virtual and/or hybrid meetings for themselves.
A total of 243 responses were received giving a response rate of 74%.
The LGA said it would submit its research to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s call for evidence on the matter.
Commenting on today's High Court hearing, John Austin, Chair of ADSO, said: “Our members have been fully committed to these proceedings and we are immensely proud, as a small organisation, to be able to take our case to the High Court to seek to effect a change which will have sweeping beneficial impacts for all if successful.
"The ability to hold meetings remotely brings openness; it brings transparency and accountability to the process – not only in the way councillors behave, but in how councils conduct their meetings and make them more accessible to the public. Councils deserve a great deal of credit for the way they have managed their business during the pandemic. If successful, our efforts will give them the flexibility to continue to serve their communities in the best possible way”.
Quentin Baker, President of LLG and Chief Legal Officer at Hertfordshire County Council, said: “LLG and ADSO have drawn on their close understanding of the local government sector to seek a way to deliver the option to enable councillors to remotely attend meetings. There is much support for this option which has the potential to make the role of councillor more accessible to our citizens and contribute to the sustainability plans of our councils. Over the last 12 months councils have demonstrated their ability to effectively deliver this option and it is hoped that the court will support this application.”
LLG and ADSO, which instructed Peter Oldham QC of 11KBW on the High Court bid, have so far raised more than £9,000 towards a target of £20,000 via Crowd Justice to fund the proceedings.
The groups said: "ADSO and LLG are two small organisations trying to effect an essential national change that will enable local authorities to function more efficiently and effectively, not just throughout the remaining path out of lockdown, but on an ongoing basis. The legal action is hugely valuable to all local authorities, however it comes at a significant price to LLG and ADSO and we would welcome any financial support you are able to give by donating to our page on Crowd Justice. We hope you can support us in securing a better future. Thank you to those who have contributed to date."