Virtual council meetings were all anyone could talk about back in February. The now famous Handforth Parish Council meeting gripped the internet. Star of the show, Jackie Weaver, was heralded for her handling of the situation and later even found fame on BBC Woman’s Hour.
But all joking aside, virtual meetings have actually been hugely beneficial to local government. Aside from exposing poor conduct from council members, it’s opened meetings up to many more people.
More participation has meant more diverse council members and a wider spectrum of viewpoints steering local policy. It enhances local democracy, with more community members present to witness and interrogate the process.
It also reduces costs and environmental impact as councillors aren’t driving to and from their local community halls each week.
But legislation that allows meetings to be hosted virtually was a temporary inclusion in the Coronavirus Act 2020, and it expired on the 6th of May.
Minister Luke Hall said the Government was under too much pressure to extend the legislation and local government have been left bemused by the decision.
Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), James Jamieson, asked the Government to make virtual meetings permanent. He warned bringing back face-to-face meetings ‘could easily involve up to 200 people in one room, even before adding in members of the public and reporters.’
He added it would make keeping meetings COVID-19 secure much harder. And he was just recently proved right.
Middlewich Town Council couldn’t hold a meeting in their usual community hall as it’s currently being used as a vaccination centre. The smaller Middlewich Methodist Church couldn’t safely accommodate the number of people attending. So they had no choice but to settle for the car park outside.
If they were legally allowed to, the meeting would’ve happily gone ahead online. Instead, they were made to withstand a meeting that was constantly being interrupted by background traffic noise.
A group of lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Hertfordshire County Council are challenging the decision in the High Court.
And even Jackie Weaver has joined forces with The Chartered Institute for IT to lobby Government to make the legislation a permanent feature.
She said: ‘Returning to face-to-face meetings poses a significant challenge for England’s parish and town councils. I am deeply disappointed at the Government’s decision not to extend remote meetings powers when there is a clear case and extensive benefits for this.’
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is asking for councils to provide evidence on the advantages of remote meetings, and back in June Robert Jenrick, The Communities Secretary, suggested that there was a desire for a legislative change to make virtual meetings possible. Up to now however, there’s no concrete evidence that the department will be making a change any time soon.
Hopefully councils won’t be waiting too long. Some councils have taken their own decision and retained virtual meetings as COVID-19 rates continue to soar, as Cheshire West and Chester council did at the end of June 2021. While others such as Manchester City Council have spent thousands of pounds on relocating to a convention centre to keep its council members and staff safe.
With the 19th July lifting of restrictions, looking to ease the legal burdens on social distancing, there may be a move to just return to the old face-to-face meetings. However, it would seem the pros of having a remote or hybrid element to a meeting outweigh the cons. It means meetings are safer, more inclusive and contribute to a healthier democratic system.
Published date: 27th July 2021
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