By Daniel Clark
New laws that enable local authorities in England to hold public meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology come into effect from Saturday.
The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic. It remains to be seen if Cornwall Council embraces the new rules with any enthusiasm – the next full council meeting, scheduled for 14th April, has already been cancelled, even though Devon County Council is planning to hold a formal cabinet meeting, via video link, on 8th April.
The new rules are supposed to enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive.
The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.
It means all councils – from Cornwall Council down to the parish councils – can continue to meet, and also applies to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities, the Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, as well as the Police and Crime Panel.
All meetings must still be made accessible for the public and the press to ‘attend’, 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.
Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.
The Regulations apply to meetings taking place before May 7, 2021, but this date could be moved forward if medical and scientific advice leads to the relaxation of social distancing rules.
Devon County Council’s cabinet are set to meet on Wednesday, April 8, via videolink. The Exeter City Council executive meeting the night beforehand is currently still listed as taking place in the Civic Centre as usual.
Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP 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 £1.6 billion 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.”
Local Government Association Chairman, Cllr James Jamieson added: “Councils are working tirelessly to support their communities as they rise to the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus crisis.
“Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. 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 6 May 2021.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed local and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for Thursday 7 May 2020 until 6 May 2021.
This article has been supplied to Cornwall Reports by the BBC Local Democracy Service