Council governance and the coronavirus
UPDATE: This post, first published on 13/03/20, was updated on 17/03/20 to reflect changed Government policy and advice.
Plenty of people across local government will be thinking seriously at the moment about business continuity as the impact of the coronavirus outbreak becomes more severe. It is likely that we are talking disruption for a number of months which could have a significant impact on councils and their work.
Substantively, there will be all sorts of issues that councils will have to get into – everything that councils and their partners in local areas do will be affected. Civil contingencies and business continuity planning will kick in. For more on this and the wider implications, there is lots of information on the LGA website.
In this context, talking about the continuation of the council meeting schedule may sound prosaic. But councils still have to transact business; decisions have to be made. At the moment the expectation is that we will have to curtail our activities for many months.
How should councils plan for what could be a prolonged period of uncertainty, particularly now that public meetings and gatherings are actively dissuaded?
The good news is that local government is rarely a spectator sport, and that the likely low number of people involved will mean that risks can be minimised. But with many councillors falling into the over-70 age bracket (as well as having other characteristics which might might them vulnerable to the disease) it seems inevitable that many formal meetings at councils will be cancelled.
What are council’s options for transacting business during this period?
Remote attendance is one obvious opportunity. Government consulted on remote attendance at certain committee meetings in its “Connecting Town Halls” paper, published in 2017. After a lengthy hiatus the consultation response – and Government’s plans – were published in July 2019. Government committed to introducing legislation to provide for videoconferencing attendance in committees. The focus of this consultation however was joint committees and combined authorities – not individual local authorities.
In the absence of the power to convene meetings with remote attendance, councils are left with a number of options to manage their business in the face of the crisis:
- Postpone meetings and decisions. Some matters which are less business-critical may simply be postponed. In recent days, however, it has become clear that ongoing restrictions to daily life will last many months;
- Working informally. Not all business needs to be transacted in formal meetings. Councillors can be made aware of, and consulted on, developments remotely;
- Intelligent use of standard delegated powers. In leader/cabinet authorities individual cabinet decision-making powers will likely exist; powers will exist for senior officers to make certain decisions too. It may be that decisions which cannot be postponed may be made under delegated powers – although the way that certain decisions are made may need to be rethought and reframed to exclude any components where delegation might otherwise pose difficulties;
- Use of emergency delegated powers. Many councils have a “backstop” emergency delegated power which allows for the chief executive (usually) to take executive action;
- Use of emergency powers under s138 of the Local Government Act 1972. This section allows councils to incur expenditure, including making grants, in the event of an emergency or disaster affecting the area (a hat tip to Dave Burn for reminding me of this one).
ADSO and LLG have published a joint letter to Government urging it to act to introduce more flexibilities to councils to allow them to make decisions in different ways. MHCLG has confirmed that legislation will be introduced to make some of these changes – but at the time of writing it is unclear exactly what these plans entail.
Councillors will want to assure themselves of how it is proposed that these emergency powers are used. It is appropriate for scrutiny to remain active and present – to oversee what is happening, to understand the impact on local people and, once the immediate crisis has passed, to debrief and learn lessons from the experience. We talk about this in a more general blogpost on the wider implications for council governance.
Scrutiny members can:
- Ask to see and review coronavirus response planning, incorporating business continuity planning for the area;
- Identify points of risk and vulnerability – using scrutiny to contribute to the council’s awareness of challenges in particular localities, and its understanding of how certain risks might be mitigated. For example, there may be communities and segments of the population with vulnerabilities relating to disability, age, ethnicity and so on;
- Keep an overall watching brief as the crisis develops. Even where scrutiny meetings are temporarily suspended, information can and should still be passed to members so that they can both assist their constituents, and prepare for more formal scrutiny after the event.
If you want advice on how you think your council is likely to be affected by this – particularly given the postponement of May’s elections – you can e-mail email@example.com or contact Ed Hammond on 07764 684 182.