Hertfordshire County Council leader slams government decision not to allow virtual council meetings

Councils have been allowed to meet virtually for the past year, as part of the response to the pandemic

Monday, 29th March 2021, 1:51 pm
Updated Monday, 29th March 2021, 1:52 pm

Hertfordshire County Council leader cllr David Williams says a government decision not to allow virtual attendance at council meetings after May 7 is “illogical”.

Councils have been allowed to meet virtually for the past year, as part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the time-limited legislation that has made it possible will run out on May 6.

Hertfordshire County Council leader slams government decision not to allow virtual council meetings

And now the Government has confirmed it will not be seeking the legislative change that would enable virtual meetings to continue.

Instead, it has issued updated guidance to council leaders designed to help them operate safely and securely.

But Cllr Williams – who is chair of the County Council Network (CCN) – says the decision is “deeply disappointing”.

He says it will pose a number of challenges for county authorities. And – pointing to government guidance that says indoor events cannot be organised until May 17 at the earliest – he says it is “illogical”.

“We have concerns over whether face-to-face council meetings can be done safely at this present time,” said Cllr Williams, speaking in his role as chair of the CCN.

“Some council chambers will not have enough room to sufficiently distance officers, councillors, members of the public, and journalists and in order to do so, councils will need to look at other venues.

“It also risks democratic participation at a time when interest in local matters is particularly high.”

Council leaders were informed of the decision in a letter from local government minister Luke Hall on Thursday, March 25.

Commenting on the updated guidance and the decision not to extend virtual meetings, Mr Hall highlights the progress of the vaccination programme and the roadmap for the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, as well as pressures on the legislative programme.

But he does encourage councils to share their experiences of remote meetings over the past year, in order to inform any future legislation.

“Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time,” said minister for regional growth and local government Mr Hall.

“As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from 7 May are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way.

“I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option.”

Nevertheless Hertfordshire County Council – in conjunction with Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers – is continuing to seek a ruling in the High Court that could still allow meetings to continue virtually.

An application – due to be heard by the end of April – has already been made to the courts for a ‘declaratory judgement’, that would give a modern interpretation of existing legislation, from 1972.

It would focus on the use of terms in that legislation such as ‘place’, ‘meeting’ and ‘present’.

And the courts would be asked to determine whether those words – 50 years later – should now be interpreted differently and whether ‘presence’ at a meeting could be virtual, as well as physical.