As parishioners will know, meetings of Bury Parish Council have been held online since March 2020 as Covid-19 restrictions prevented the normal “in person” events to take place. Initially, the Government introduced legislation facilitating the use of remote meetings by councils up to 6th May 2021. Given the concerns around the health risks that still exist with physical meetings, it was expected that the legislation enabling remote meetings would be extended – however the Government did not do so which led to a case being brought by The Association of Democratic Services Officers, Lawyers in Local Government and Hertfordshire CC concerned whether councils already have the powers needed to hold online meetings through flexibility in current laws which date back to 1972. The case was actually supported by the Government but the High Court ruled that from 7th May all council meetings must take place in person.
Responding to the judgement in the High Court, Cllr Sue Baxter, chairman of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), said:
“I am extremely disappointed that the application to the High Court regarding remote meetings has been dismissed.
“All councils must now return to holding physical meetings from 7 May. This includes around 2,000 local (parish and town) councils with elections who must hold an annual meeting in May following those elections.
“Such physical meetings, to which all members of the public are entitled to attend, will result in both a health risk given the current pandemic and significant additional costs incurred by councils in securing suitable venues which allow social distancing and other safety measures.
“Over the last year, the ability to hold remote meetings has delivered extensive benefits including leading to increased participation and engagement by members of the public with their most local council and the decisions they make about their local areas from tackling climate change to improving health and well-being and the provision of highly valued local services.
“Given the government’s apparent support for allowing remote meetings, including their evidence to the Court Hearing, I am appealing to ministers to pull out all the stops over the coming days and weeks to introduce the necessary primary legislation. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have already passed legislation to allow for remote meetings and I urge the Government to follow their lead.”
Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, has now commented: –
“I am grateful for the efforts that local authorities have made to allow remote meetings in their area and recognise that there has been a considerable investment of time, training and technology to enable these meetings to take place. I would therefore encourage you to participate in our Call For Evidence on the use of remote meetings before it closes on 17 June, so that we can better evidence our next steps in this area.”
Attendance by the public at online meetings of BPC during the last 13 months has shown a significant and most encouraging increase over previous “in person” meetings – May 4th’s council meeting had a dozen attendees – and it is to be hoped that we will at least have the option of conducting online meetings in the future.