The Local Government Association has added its voice to calls for urgent legislation to facilitate councils being able to host remote and hybrid meetings in light of the Omicron variant.
Earlier this month Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers urged ministers to restore the ability of councils to meet remotely, even if only for a temporary period, with the emergence of the new variant.
Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the LGA, said: “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 an unnecessary public health risk for elected members and officers to take when councils have demonstrated over the pandemic that it is possible to hold formal decision-making meetings in a remote or hybrid manner.”
Cllr Jamieson noted that a recent LGA survey of councils, conducted before the emergence of Omicron, on the impact of returning exclusively to in-person meetings showed that 72% of councils saw a drop in councillor attendance at statutory council meetings and 73% reported that public attendance at council meetings had also fallen.
He said: “Since the emergence of Omicron, we’ve seen an increasing number of councils having to cancel meetings, restrict attendance and reduce items for discussion in an attempt to reduce the risks of transmission. These are decisions taken only as a last resort and are not a long-term solution.
"By introducing emergency legislation to allow councils to hold remote or hybrid meetings, councils will be taking further steps to slow down the spread of the Omnicron variant as well as ensuring councils can continue to make democratic decisions, even during times of emergency.”
In April this year the Divisional Court clarified that meetings held by local authorities in England under the Local Government Act 1972 would have to take place in person from 7 May 2021 when emergency regulations introduced in the early stages of the first lockdown expired.
In June LLG 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 that month 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”.