by Akeem Iginla
The plea by local Government bodies and supported by the Secretary of State to continue to allow virtual Council Meetings as well as planning committees, to continue from Friday the 7th of May 2021 have been ruled against by the High Court as it require primary legislation.
As a result of the Government lockdown in March of last year due to the pandemic, local authorities were allowed to hold meetings online and the legislation enabling this, is due to expire on the 6th of May 2021. The Local Government Minister Luke Hall MP, in his letter sent to all Council leaders last month stated that and extension of the emergency regulations requires primary legislation and emergency legislation and was therefore not currently feasible.
The Association of Democratic Service Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire County Council instituted a legal application to seek a declaration from the High Court that existing provision with the Local Government Act 1972 can allow for virtual meetings to continue beyond the expiration of the emergency regulation.
However, the Court concluded in its ruling that the Secretary of State was right when he stated that primary legislation would be required to enable local authority meetings under the Local Government Act of 1972 to take place remotely.
The Court noted that “once the Regulations, the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations, made on 1 April 2020 cease to apply, such meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location and attending a meeting at such location means physically going to it, and being present at such a meeting involves physical presence.”
The Court however, acknowledged that there are strong arguments favourably disposed to allowing remote meetings. It also noted that there are dissenting voices too but agreed that Parliament should determine such choices and not the courts.
The Local Government bodies noted that they were disappointed at the decision of the Court to refuse to support the updated interpretation that had been proposed in support for the option of remote meetings which would have allowed them to continue to provide the necessary service to the community.
They further stated that they will not be lobbying the Government to quickly bring forward the necessary legislation to deal with this impasse and to ensure that Councils have local choice to determine the method by which meetings can take place and not just during pandemic cases, rather for the long term.
John Austin, who is the Association of Democratic Service Officers (ADSO) chairman, stated that the untenable situation that the Councils find themselves in needed to be addressed and called on the support of the Secretary of State for quick legislation on this matter as per Governments in Wales and Scotland have.
Planners have also given their support. The regulatory body, Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has called on Government to introduce primary legislation as a matter of urgency to allow for virtual meetings to continue and also, exploring how a hybrid model could operate.
The RTPI, is of the opinion that virtual meetings have shown to be cost effective and have increased the number of people participating in the democratic process. Consequently, by putting a halt to this, would slow the decision-making process whilst many lockdown. Measures remain in place.
Meanwhile, the Government call for evidence of the issue to remain open to members of the public until the 17th of June 2021 providing an opportunity for stakeholders to submit and voice their support for virtual Council’s meetings.