Further thoughts on the Government’s position on remote council meetings
In February we published a detailed position paper setting out views on the continuation of remote meetings in local government in England. Luke Hall MP, Minister of State for Local Government, has in a letter to the Leaders of principal councils confirmed that Government has no plans to legislate to make these temporary arrangements permanent.
This is disappointing but not surprising. We are particularly concerned by the Minister’s suggestion that a solution to the public health challenges around physical meetings is to make more use of delegation to officers.
Our position remains that councils need the flexibility which remote meeting powers will allow – now, while the pandemic continues, but also for the future, where meetings convened remotely could allow for greater accessibility and visibility for local democracy. It is worth noting that, asking in our annual survey whether remote meeting powers should continue, 70% of 260 respondents (from around 100 different councils) said yes.
The Minister states in his letter that he is “launching a call for evidence on the use of current arrangements and to gather views on the question of whether there should be permanent arrangements and if so, for which meetings”.
Choosing to consult further on powers which local government already has, and which are almost universally regarded to have worked well over the past year, does not seem necessary. It is worth noting that in 2017, MHCLG consulted on this issue (in respect of a far more restrictive model of remote meeting) and in 2019 committed to taking further action in legislation.
It is inevitable that practice on remote meetings will need to be refined – particularly in relation to the operation of “hybrid”, part-remote, meetings. But we consider that such refinements should take place locally, based on conversations between councils and the communities they serve about which approach provide best for open, transparent decision-making and local democracy.
CfGS supports the ongoing legal action being led by Hertfordshire County Council, LLG and ADSO. Councils can be trusted to put the necessary provisions and safeguards in place to ensure that remote meeting works for local communities. In terms of embedding sustainable and effective practices post-pandemic, English councils can learn from the experience of those in Wales, where remote meetings were originally provided for in s4 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, as amended by the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021.