The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, has said he is “strongly in sympathy with the view that hybrid meetings should continue in order to ensure the maximum amount of efficiency”.
Mr Gove’s comments come as the local government sector awaits the outcome of the Government’s call for evidence on the issue of remote and hybrid meetings.
In a Parliamentary debate this week, Conservative MP Dr Neil Hudson had said to the minister: “Volunteers who serve on our parish councils do an amazing job. In rural communities such as mine, there are significant challenges to attending meetings, such as transport, adverse weather, work and caring responsibilities. In the pandemic, we have seen that the virtual or hybrid format works well.
“Moving forward, will the Secretary of State look to allow parish councils to sit in virtual or hybrid format to increase and widen access and to help them work to the best of their ability?”
In response the Secretary of State said: “If during the pandemic we had not allowed councils to meet virtually, not only would we have impaired the effective working of local government, but we would never have known about Jackie Weaver and the country would have been the poorer for it. I commend the work of parish councils and others.
“I am strongly in sympathy with the view that hybrid meetings should continue in order to ensure the maximum amount of efficiency. There is a case for saying that certain significant local authority meetings should occur with all councillors present, but I want to proceed with the maximum amount of consensus to reflect the maximum level of efficiency and in particular of sensitivity to those who serve in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, where the rurality and dispersed nature of representation are important.”
There was dismay in parts of the sector when, in a written statement issued on 31 December 2021, Lord Greenhalgh, Minister of State for Building Safety and Fire jointly at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office, said: “A High Court judgement handed down on 27 April 2021 confirmed that the Local Government Act 1972 specifies that council meetings must take place in person at a single, specified, geographical location and being “present” at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location.
“This judgement confirmed that the regulations which allowed local authorities to meet remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic did not apply to meetings after 6 May 2021.”
This came after calls in November 2021, from organisations including the Local Government Association (LGA), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) for councils to be given the ability - even if only on a temporary basis - to hold meetings in this way in light of the impact of the Omicron variant.