The Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, Jackie Weaver, and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, have together joined growing calls for the Government to make online council meetings lawful post after the expiry of emergency legislation.
Ms Weaver, who became famous when a recording of a remote meeting at Handforth Parish Council went viral, and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said online meetings would grow participation in local democracy long-term – and help the environment.
Their comments come ahead of a hearing next week where the High Court will consider LLG, ADSO and Hertfordshire County Council’s application for court declarations that pre-existing legislation (the Local Government Act 1972) allows councils in England to hold remote meetings.
If they are unsuccessful, councils in England will have to return to in-person meetings when the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 – brought in shortly after the beginning of the first lockdown – expire on 7 May 2021.
Earlier this week Quentin Baker, President of LLG, and John Austin, chair of ADSO, explained to Local Government Lawyer their motivation for bringing the legal proceedings. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, has now said that the Government would support their claim over the interpretation of the 1972 Act.
According to Ms Weaver, the "continuation of virtual council meetings is essential for enhancing local democracy which is the foundation of our society".
She added: "It was vital to avoid face-to-face meetings during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but there has been a great deal of feedback from local councils about the additional benefits of remote meetings. That includes the environmental and cost benefits of reduced travel, increased participation from local residents, accessibility, and the ability of the community to bear witness to the process. Remote meetings also have the potential to attract more diverse local council members.”
Ms Weaver suggested that returning to face-to-face meetings posed a significant challenge for England's parish and town councils. “I am deeply disappointed at the Government's decision not to extend remote meetings powers when there is a clear case and extensive benefits for this.”
John Higgins, President of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT said online access to local council meetings "has shown us the good, the bad and the ugly in local decision making. To use an old adage, the now notorious Handforth Parish Council video showed us how the sausage gets made, and although we didn't much like what we saw – it's better to see it being made than not".
Mr Higgins added: "Digital access to local democracy during the pandemic has transformed our ability to hold elected officials to account and call out inappropriate behaviour. It has also reignited calls for civil society to create a far more inclusive environment to encourage greater, more diverse participation in decision making; this reckoning is long overdue and Government must act swiftly to ensure our democracy remains online.”