Local authorities, including Parish Councils, have now been allowed to hold public meetings remotely by video or telephone under new powers introduced at the beginning of April.
In a special measure brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the Government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold council and other public meetings in person. However, a requirement for meetings to be accessible by the public will remain.
The Statutory Instrument that came into force on April 1st has the rather unweildy title of LOCAL GOVERNMENT, ENGLAND POLICE, ENGLAND AND WALES. The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020.
Hardly slips off the tongue but it represents a seismic change in the way the process of our local democracy is facilitated.
Elected representatives on the lower tiers of government were required to be physically present for council business to be undertaken. Members were not allowed to vote or take decisions in absentia.
Councillors must still be technically ‘present’ to take part in meetings but they can now contribute remotely. During this current crisis the sight of Cabinet Ministers and other government officials meeting via e-conference methods has become commonplace.
Several larger councils already host some meetings via webcam or live audio, however, this will be the first time councillors will have the ability to use technology to officially meet between themselves.
Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, said: ‘Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.
‘This includes working from home wherever possible and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
’It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.’
While the population at large has become familiar with Skype, Zoom and similar social and business collaborating software, it is still novel to imagine the lowest tier of government – sometimes erroneously confused with parochial church councils à la ‘Vicar of Dibley’ – having to embrace this technology in order to continue to function effectively.
Chairman of the Local Government Association, Cllr. James Jamieson says “Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis.
“Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions.
“They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.”