Council urges government to allow remote meetings to continue

Council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty, opposition leader Nancy Platts and Conservative Group leader Steve Bell have sent a joint letter to the government, asking they extend the option for local authorities to hold council and committee meetings remotely.

Powers given to councils last April because of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing them to meet and make decisions virtually, are due to expire on 7 May.

But, in a letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Authorities Robert Jenrick MP, the three group leaders are calling for local authorities to be given the option of holding meetings in person, virtually or have a hybrid arrangement.

A copy of the letter can be found below:

Dear Secretary of State

Need to extend the option of remote attendance at council meetings 

Brighton & Hove City Council is committed to enhancing public participation in the democratic process, including arrangements for making decisions at meetings of Full Council. We are proud of the fact that, in spite of the ravages of the pandemic, we have been able to continue to allow democratic accountability from members of the public and councillors in committees and sub-committees. We have more public questions, petitions and deputations and online followers than most comparable local authorities, indeed the level of public involvement has shown we’ve been successful in opening up our democratic processes to participation.

The city is currently holding all its meetings remotely using the powers under the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings England and Wales) Regulations 2020 (the 2020 Regulations.) This has not only enabled the council to hold meetings in a safe way and minimise the risk of Covid-19 infection spreading, it has also enabled councillors with work commitments and members of the public not able to attend meetings in person to be able to take part remotely. 

The 2020 Regulations come to an end on 7 May 2021 and, unless the government extends the provisions, local authorities will be forced to hold meetings which require attendance in person. This has really damaging and significant negative implications especially, as a mere twelve weeks away from the end, we are still grappling with the rise of new aggressive Covid-19 variants, locally increased admissions to high dependency units and unacceptably high deaths. In particular: 

  • It is, in our view, highly unlikely that the pandemic will be sufficiently suppressed to entirely remove the risk of infection. As such, in-person meetings will expose members of the public, council staff and ouncillors to unnecessary and avoidable risk; 
  • The flexibility afforded by virtual meetings or hybrid meetings being lost. This would be a retrograde step in terms of equalities and inclusion; 
  • This would be out of line with what is increasingly becoming a normal way of working in the digital age. 

Based on press reports, we understand that the government’s current view is that the extension of the 2020 regulations will require primary legislation and that there is no time left in the parliamentary timetable to do so. We believe that there are powers under section 16 of the Local Government Act 1999 to modify existing legislation which is not time limited and we further believe that regulations could be made under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 rather than relying on the Coronavirus Act 2020. I am also aware that the Lawyers in Local Government group and the Association of Democratic Services Officers are currently seeking legal advice to confirm their view that permission to hold remote meetings could be extended through secondary legislation. 

We would therefore ask that the government uses whatever powers are in existence and, if necessary, introduce emergency primary legislation to enable the current arrangements to continue. We are not asking local authorities to be forced to hold meetings remotely, but they should be given the power to hold meetings physically, remotely or have a hybrid arrangement. This will enable them to respond to local circumstances and adopt the most appropriate arrangement for their area. 

We therefore request that the position is reviewed urgently and that appropriate steps are taken to introduce the necessary primary or secondary legislation in time so that local authorities can decide how meetings are conducted having regard to the state of the pandemic at the time as well as local preferences. We welcome the commitment you made through the Local Government Association to take local authorities’ comments on board. We join the voices of many different local authorities of different political control and over the country making the case to extend the provision for local authorities to meet remotely or in hybrid form beyond May 7 and for as long as we are grappling with the pandemic. 
I look forward to hearing from you. 

Yours sincerely
Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty
Leader of the Council
Green Party Councillor for Brunswick and Adelaide, Brighton &Hove City Council

Councillor Nancy Platts, 
Leader of Labour Group

Councillor Steve Bell
Leader of the Conservative Group 

A backward step

Councillor Mac Cafferty said: “At the moment it’s difficult to see a scenario where it will be safe to hold in-person council meetings in late spring or early summer. Covid-19 will not have disappeared by May and reverting back to the old way of holding meetings too soon puts the public, staff and councillors at unnecessary risk. 

“Virtual meetings give us greater flexibility and removes the need for unnecessary travel, something we should all be looking to do if we’re to reduce toxic emissions in the city.”

"In a digital age where remote working is fast becoming the norm, forcing in-person attendance would be a backward step."

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