Local authorities in England have been given the power to hold public meetings through video or telephone conferencing technology.
The Government has temporarily removed the local government requirement for the public to have physical access to meetings – such as for full council and committees – to make it possible for them to take place while maintaining social distancing during the coronavirus crisis.
It applies from tomorrow – 4 April – initially until 7 May and to all categories of public meetings, removing a regulatory barrier to councils taking advantage of the technology during the pandemic.
The Department for Communities and Local Government said that rules on the number of attendees necessary for a meeting will remain, but that virtual attendance will count.
The idea is that meetings will remain accessible to the public through video and audio conferencing channels.
Backbone of democracy
Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP said: “Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.
“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.”
The move won the support of the Local Government Association, whose chair Councillor James Jamieson said: “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.
“Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives.”
There have been reports of councils looking for ways to run virtual meetings inside the regulations: Waltham Forest confirmed this week that its planning committee had held a meeting with four councillors in the room but up to 60 other people attending through video conferencing.
The change will also apply to police and crime panels in England and Wales.
Image from US Dept of Agriculture, public domain