By Ben O’Connell, Local Democracy Reporter
All councils in England have been handed new powers to hold meetings virtually from Saturday (April 4) – but the public must still have access.
The Government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic.
It claims that this will enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive.
Some authorities had previously held meetings with the minimum number of members required to make decisions – sat an appropriate distance apart, while others had been looking at using phone or video conferencing technology anyway.
Northumberland County Council, as of last week, had simply cancelled all of its meetings until at least Wednesday, April 22.
Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision-making.
“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.
“We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time.”
The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings, including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.
The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.
Local Government Association chairman, Coun James Jamieson, said: “Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.
“Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives.”
The Government is also working to bring in new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before May next year. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed local and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for May 7 this year until May 6, 2021.