Councils in England have noted a range of benefits of virtual meetings, “which they hope to retain going forward through the option to continue virtual and hybrid meetings as and when it is deemed locally appropriate”, the Local Government Association has said in its submission to the Government’s call for evidence.
The LGA said: “Key benefits include the resilience of democratic processes and reduced reliance on delegating decisions to officers in times of crisis and flexibility, resulting in better councillor attendance and drastically increased resident engagement with council meetings.”
Councils also told the LGA that physical meetings could be a barrier to attendance for some individuals and that virtual meetings could be more accessible. “Disabled people and people with caring responsibilities or working commitments can find virtual meetings easier to access; this applies to residents and councillors alike.”
In its submission the LGA said that if the flexibility to hold online meetings is restored to councils “it is essential that the government avoids being overly prescriptive about the circumstances under which councils can use virtual and hybrid meeting formats.
“Councils and councillors are best placed to decide how and when to use different meetings formats to balance the advantages and disadvantages of different meeting options and reflect the variety of local authority types and governance arrangements.”
The LGA added that councils would need considerable flexibility for local determination as to how and when to utilise virtual and hybrid meetings to ensure they could realise the benefits of different meeting options to suit their local context.
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government launched the call for evidence in March 2021. It runs until 17 June.
In April the Divisional Court ruled that meetings held by local authorities in England under the Local Government Act 1972 had to take place in person from 7 May 2021 when emergency regulations introduced in the early stages of the first lockdown expired.
Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) and Hertfordshire County Council had asked the court to decide whether, on the expiry of regulations made under the Coronavirus Act 2020 providing for local authority meetings held before 7 May 2021 to take place remotely, it would be lawful for such meetings to continue to be held remotely under pre-existing legislation.