No more local authority remote meetings for now
Until March 2020, the long-established practice had been for local authorities to conduct their meetings at town halls or council offices. That all changed after the first coronavirus lockdown when remote meetings were authorised under the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the associated ‘Flexibility Regulations’.
Since then, remotely held meetings have been used extensively and, while not without their problems, they have proven indispensable in allowing local authority business to continue during the pandemic. They have also generally been regarded as a useful tool by which to conduct council affairs and the continued ability to conduct remote meetings on a permanent basis would have been widely welcomed.
However, the 2020 Act and the Flexibility Regulations were limited to meetings held before 7 May 2021. And the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government had already made it clear well before then that there was no scope in the 2020 Act to extend its provisions beyond 7 May and that to allow remote meetings beyond that date, would require primary legislation which could not presently be fitted into the Government’s legislative programme.
So it was that Hertfordshire County Council, supported by various local government organisations, brought court proceedings seeking declarations that the Local Government Act 1972 already allowed remote meetings to take place so that they could continue to be held under existing powers after the demise of the Flexibility Regulations on 7 May 2021.
It was argued that references in the 1972 Act to a “meeting”, a “place” where a meeting was to be held and a person being “present” at a meeting should be interpreted, using an “updating approach”, to embrace remote meetings, virtual places and attendance by telephone or video conference means. Somewhat surprisingly, given his previous position, the Secretary of State also lent his support to this argument.
None of this cut any ice with the Administrative Court. In a careful but conservative judgment handed down on 28 April 2021, it ruled unambiguously that remote meetings were not permissible under the 1972 Act. Once the Flexibility Regulations ceased to apply, local authority meetings had to take place at a single, specified geographical location – attending a meeting at such a location meant physically going to it and being at such a meeting involved physical presence at that location. In a subsidiary judgment handed down on 4 May the Court further held that, in order for a meeting to be open to the public, members of the public had to be admitted in person to the place where the meeting was held.
The Court’s decision, though understandable from a legal perspective, has been greeted with considerable disappointment in local government circles. No authority could now contemplate the continued use of remote meetings.
Hard-won experience gained in this new way of working cannot now be carried forward in practice. Cost and efficiency savings made by some authorities will be lost. Some fear public participation in decision-making may be reduced. Rapid readjustment to the old way of working will now be imperative. No doubt further strain is going to be imposed on already stretched public resources. Those awaiting local authority decisions which require a meeting to take place should brace themselves for possible delays.
On the other hand, there will be those who consider that a return to actual meetings will increase scrutiny, improve the quality of member debate and avoid the mishaps with technology that sometimes compromise even the most carefully managed remote meeting.
The Government is presently running a consultation, open until 17 June 2021, to gather evidence of the experience of remote meetings to date and to seek views on whether future provision should be made for their use on a permanent basis. It is inevitable that this would have to be through new primary legislation, the Parliamentary timetable permitting.
For the moment, the digital revolution is firmly on hold when it comes to local authority meetings. Everyone who wishes to see that revolution come about sooner rather than later should respond to the consultation.