The Government have finally published the changes to the arrangements for holding local authority meetings that came into effect on 4 April. These are the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020.
These regulations relate to local authority and also police and crime panel meetings that should be held before 7 May 2021, so we can anticipate that next year things will return to normal.
They allow local authorities to hold meetings remotely, which amends the issues in Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972, which provides that members must be present. However, the rules around voting and the casting vote of the chair remain.
It means that meetings can be held via telephone conferencing, videoconferencing, webcasts and live streaming, provided that members can be seen, heard and participate, and councils can amend their standing orders accordingly. This would, we suggest, include requirements for members to remain visible/online at all times throughout a meeting so that it is certain that they heard all of the debate.
The changes also mean that the annual meetings of local authorities that would otherwise have been held before the end of May, do not need to be held this year, as the appointments to Chairman, Mayor, committees etc. will continue until either the next annual meeting in May 2021 or until “such time as the authority determines”. In effect, therefore, it is as though everything rolls on for another year.
In other parts of the regulations, and worth noting, is the requirement that press and public access is, in effect, to be utilised as if the meeting was held as normal. So arrangements for public meetings should enable the press and public to access.
What this practically means for local authorities is that they can hold meetings on a “virtual“ basis. For councils who have a committee system, this will be very helpful, as it means that any decisions that need to be taken by the council can go ahead. For councils who operate an executive system, it enables them to operate more or less as normal, particularly where very little is delegated to a single Cabinet member.
It does mean, however, that all councils required to have an annual meeting will not hold this and can continue should they wish with the existing arrangements.
On a practical level, this means that it can be business as usual for local authorities provided, of course, that they can ensure that every member who is on a committee or a member of council can participate throughout the meeting.
The first thing that authorities should do, therefore, is to ensure that all members can participate in meetings when they would typically be expected to participate; or if they are appointed to a particular committee or another body. It would be wrong, in my view, to go ahead without this and so where some duly appointed members who would otherwise be expected to participate are not able to do so. Or do so on an incomplete basis.
However, once members have the necessary technology to participate, it is more or less business as normal. There will, however, be a necessity to ensure first of all, that members are comfortable and able to use the new arrangements, whatever the council chooses.
The alternative is to continue with the use of urgency powers on a delegation to the Chief Executive. This could continue; although in many cases, local authorities have been concerned about using this for matters affecting the public, mostly relating to planning. It may be advisable to try to replicate your ordinary rules within the revised guidance.
Whilst the changes do not specifically relate to the issue of non-attendance for six months, hopefully, any member who is likely to come towards that can be reminded and can participate in a virtual meeting before the six months is up.
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