The Local Government Association (LGA) has urged the Government to legislate for councils to be able to run virtual and hybrid meetings.
It has gone public with the call a year after the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) launched a consultation on the issue, for which it has not yet published a response.
This was staged after the end of a temporary relaxation – prompted by the Covid-19 lockdown – of the law requiring councils to give the public physical access to meetings.
LGA said local authorities reported an increase in participation by members and residents when remote meetings using video conferencing technology were allowed. While the DLUHC consultation raised hopes it was ready to reconsider, its failure to release the results have led to uncertainty and made it difficult for councils to plan effectively – despite much of their workforce having adapted to virtual and hybrid working.
Priority for councils
Cllr James Jamieson, chair of the LGA, said: “It has been a year since the Government’s call for evidence around remote and hybrid meetings, but it has yet to publish the results or take any steps to address this issue, which is a priority for councils up and down the country.
“The pandemic proved that using virtual meeting options can help councils work more effectively and efficiently and can in fact increase engagement from both councillors and residents, which is a vital part of local democracy.
“We urge the Government to act quickly and take the next steps to introduce legislation that would empower local authorities to make the most suitable choice for their organisation and communities and bring them in-step with the residents' expectations of organisations that provide local services in the 21st century.”
LGA said councils want the flexibility to offer hybrid and virtual meetings so they can work in the most accessible and resilient way possible, especially in times of emergency, and to help attract a wider range of people as candidates in local elections.
It has published a report based on a survey it conducted over October and November 2021. Key findings included that 72% of respondents thought that councillor attendance had been lower since returning to in-person meetings, 73% thought attendance by the public was lower, and 53% thought engagement with the public was lower.
In addition, 84% through the casts associated with statutory council meetings had increased.