Under 50-year-old law, councils are required to hold certain statutory meetings, such as for planning and full council, in person. However, during the pandemic, councils were temporarily allowed to hold these meetings virtually until May 2021.
The LGA, the body representing Local Authorities recently stated that ‘Councils are calling on the Government to finally remove this outdated barrier to participation and legislate to allow councils the flexibility to decide for them how they should use virtual meeting technologies.’
Without these powers, they are warning that communities will needlessly lose good councillors and put off prospective candidates from standing for election because in-person meetings are creating real barriers to a range of people engaging with local politics.
Previous LGA research found that when hybrid meetings were carried during the pandemic it had increased public attendance and created greater engagement in the local democratic process.
Cllr Joe Harris, Vice-Chair of the LGA said:
"Good decision-making needs people who reflect the range of experiences, background and insight that exist in their communities.
"However, councillors are restricted by law to attend council meetings in person, which can deter a range of people including full time professionals, parents of young children, carers, workers and disabled people from stepping forward to represent their communities."
Cllr Keith Stevens, chair of the National Association of Local Councils said:
"We need to make it easier, not harder, for people to participate in civic life and get involved in their local communities. Giving local (parish and town) councils the flexibility to hold online and hybrid council meetings is a great place to start and should be decided locally and not in Downing Street."
A debate in the House of Lords on the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill took place on 13 July and discussed an amendment which would allow councils to hold virtual council meetings if they wished.
Baroness McIntosh who asked for the amendment highlighted the work of the LGA:
Following an extensive survey, the Local Government Association recently published a report showing that 95% of those responding from principal councils indicated that they wanted to reintroduce virtual meeting technology as an option at statutory meetings. They have suffered an impact on the recruitment and retention of councillors, and barriers have been created since the removal of these regulations permitting virtual attendance, particularly where there are work and caring commitments or health and disability issues.
Baroness Pinnock echoed points made by Baroness McIntosh who asked for the amendment by saying:
My Lords, I make clear that this amendment, to which I have added my name, is about local authorities having the option to make some of their meetings virtual or hybrid. It is not about going back to having all meetings held virtually; it is about having the option to do so where that makes sense in local circumstances.
We want as broad a selection as we can of people from our communities to become councillors, including the young and old, people with disabilities and people with caring responsibilities. We need them on our councils so that those voices are heard.…
The huge size of some of the councils that the Government have now created... People know where Selby is now, so I will use the example of Selby, which is in the south of the southern tip of North Yorkshire. To travel to a meeting in Northallerton, where the county headquarters is, means covering a distance of about 53 miles, which would take probably an hour and a half—so it is a three-hour round trip to go to a council meeting. Think of how many people that will exclude: those who cannot drive would not be able to get there, as there are no buses and no trains, or very few. This is not like London. In the winter North Yorkshire has snow, which makes it even more difficult to get physically to meetings, which is when a virtual option makes really good sense.
The amendment was put to the vote and accepted. The bill now continues its progress through Parliament.
Find out more from the LGA on the issue at this link:
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