LLG (Lawyers in Local Government) has called for the ability of local authorities in England to hold meetings virtually to be put on a permanent footing, “to be used flexibility by each individual local authority when it so determines”.
Earlier this week the Local Government Association made a similar call in its submission to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government call for evidence and urged ministers not to adopt an “overly prescriptive approach”.
In its submission to the Government’s call for evidence, LLG said:
- The remote meetings arrangements that were put in place in the early stages of the pandemic (and which expired on 7 May 2021) had worked very well. Local authorities adapted “incredibly quickly” to the need to hold virtual meetings. “Due to the steps taken within the sector, the experience of LLG members as reported to us is that the virtual meeting provision was well managed and effectively implemented by local authorities.”
- The remote meetings arrangements delivered a wide range of benefits including: more accessibility for local authority members; reduction in travel time for councillors; easier access for residents, greater transparency; greater equality in speaking time; increased democratic participation; cost savings (one county council reported in year savings in excess of £61,000); increased variance in councillor demographics.
- The advantages of having the option to hold remote meetings “far outweighs” any identified disadvantages. Many disadvantages identified early on, such as lack of familiarity with technological platforms, had now been overcome. There was no evidence that democratic decision making had suffered as a result of virtual meetings.
- It seemed “unlikely that swathes of elected members would live and perform their duties outside of their local area on a permanent basis not least because we do not anticipate local authorities to hold virtual meetings on every occasion, quite the opposite in fact”.
- If councils were given the ability to determine when and how their meetings are conducted virtually and when they are to be held in person, this would alleviate the majority of disadvantages.
- Local authorities in England should have the option to hold remote meetings for all meetings, and in any circumstances. “It should be a matter of complete choice for local authorities to determine which meetings will be held virtually without being bound in such a way as to remove the flexibility to switch between in-person and remote meetings for any or all meeting types. Local authorities are best placed to determine what best suits both its own situation together with local needs in how it conducts its meetings.”
- If anything, the flexibility to hold remote meetings would provide greater access for individuals with protected characteristics given that the need to attend in person would be reduced. “Remote meetings would provide flexibility to balance caring responsibilities. Technology provides solution-based access options and tools for individuals with disabilities who might struggle to physically attend a council building. Local Authorities are bound by both the Equalities Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty and are well placed to safeguard the interests of individuals falling into those categories.”
LLG added: “National democracy is inherently different from local authority. The House of Commons is not a committee room where members of the public in their personal capacity are routinely and frequently called to attend and make representations. There are varied procedural differences across a wide spectrum of areas falling within that which is classified as a local authority meeting. As such, it is not constructive to compare the two as against the other.”
The deadline for the call for evidence was 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.
LLG, the Association of Democratic Services Officers 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.