Cross-party ‘disappointment’ at Hertfordshire County Council as High Court rules out virtual council meetings
For the past 12 months, councils have been allowed to meet remotely, in line with time-limited powers in the Coronavirus regulations
Senior Hertfordshire county councillors – from all political parties – say a ruling that council meetings must be face-to-face from May 7 is 'disappointing'.
For the past 12 months, councils have been allowed to meet remotely, in line with time-limited powers in the Coronavirus regulations.
But despite a High Court bid by Hertfordshire County Council, the rules will change when those regulations cease on May 7.
Local Government Minister Luke Hall has now written to council leaders to tell them that ‘councils will need to return to face to face meetings’ and that they should ‘prepare accordingly’.
And – with the continuing need for social distancing – that means councils are having to consider the use of alternative venues or measures such as the installation of plastic screens in council chambers.
In Hertfordshire leading members of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour groups say they have been ‘disappointed’ by the High Court decision.
Deputy leader of the county council Conservative Cllr Teresa Heritage says allowing meetings to be held remotely would have brought councils in line with rules governing corporate organisations.
And she says the decision has raised awareness of how “outdated” local government rules are.
She points to the benefits of remote meetings, which she says includes a reduction in travelling time and car emissions and improved public access to democracy.
And she says she believes efforts will continue to try and get the legislation changed.
“I don’t think this is the end,” said Cllr Heritage.
“Over the period of shutdown we found more residents had become more engaged in democracy because of being able to go online and listen more.
“It’s opened up democracy a lot more, which is what we have been trying to do.”
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the county council Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst also believes the decision of the High Court was “disappointing”.
He says it is “unreasonable” of the government not to have made parliamentary time to legislate, to allow remote meetings to continue while Covid was a risk.
And he says he hopes the Secretary of State would bring forward parliamentary time to do so.
Cllr Giles-Medhurst also points to those councillors who will be wary about returning to face to face meetings – and to the ‘huge’ extra costs of making premises ‘safe’.
He highlights the advantages of remote meetings – suggesting they cut out the travel between meetings, save time, increase sustainability and increase public engagement.
And he says: “What has been quite clear during Coronavirus is that there has been more public engagement with having virtual meetings – with the public being able to livestream and listen to what being said.”
Leader of the Labour group Cllr Judi Billing describes the judgment of the High Court as “desperately disappointing” – but still hopes the government will decide to legislate.
“We will do our best to comply with the legislation but I am still hoping that the government will decide to legislate very quickly,” she said.
“Surely they must realise how unfair and unjust it is.”
Cllr Billing says the council will be faced with finding alternative venues or spending ‘ridiculous amounts of money’ on measures such as screens.
But she says the alternative that worries her the most is mechanisms that would reduce the number of councillors required at meetings or where powers would be delegated to officers.
“Those last two would take away from local democracy and I don’t think are acceptable,” she said.
Cllr Billing also recognises that there will be some members who will be nervous about being ‘packed’ in to a space with 77 other councillors and officers.
And she says she will be supporting any challenges made in order to find a solution ‘very quickly’.
Meanwhile she also points to the ‘marvellous work’ locally where councillors have been able to use technology to connect with residents, who have not contacted them before.
In a letter sent to all council leaders on Thursday, April 29, Government Minister Luke Hall highlighted the judgment of the High Court.
He said that the judgment found that the Local Government Act 1972 ‘does not allow local authorities to hold meetings virtually’.
And he said the government had concluded that it was not possible to secure primary legislation to extend the current regulation before May 6.
He said that councils would need to return to face to face meetings and that councils should ‘prepare accordingly’.
And he pointed to updated government guidance that he said highlighted ‘ways in which councils can, if necessary, minimise the need for, or risks of, face-to-face meetings’.
Meanwhile a spokesperson from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said: “We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.
“Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after 6 May and should continue to prepare accordingly.”