This week, the High Court ruled against Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) and Hertfordshire County Council and their bid to enable local councils to continue meeting remotely. The judgement states that following the ending of the current ‘Flexibility’ regulations on May 6th, that local council meetings
‘must take place at a single, specified geographical location; attending a meeting at such a location means physically going to it; and being “present” at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location’.
Representatives from our umbrella organisations (NALC, SLCC) have expressed ‘disappointment’ in this ruling, suggesting that it is a ‘shame’ that remote meetings cannot continue. We are more than disappointed – we are angry that our members, our officers, and our residents are being denied the right to democracy due to the inaction of legislators and placed at risk during a period of continuing impact from the pandemic. We feel that those that represent us have failed to impart the significance of these decisions and look with frustration at the House of Commons, where distancing rules and safety measures remain in place. The inequity of this is not lost on those of us working at the frontline of local democracy.
We have seen exceptional levels of support from local people regarding the online meetings. Having historically seen very few members of the public attend in person, this week alone has seen over 500 views of two meetings. Over the course of the past year, our meetings (both full council and committees) have been watched over 7,000 times, averaging over 200 views for each meeting.
We cannot, in any good conscience, agree to the return of ‘in person’ meetings at this time. The idea of 19 councillors, plus 3 or 4 officers and members of the public gathering in our chambers is as unlawful as holding virtual meetings – we have a duty of care alongside legal obligations under health and safety and equalities legislation. Any risk assessment is going to show that this situation is unworkable and unsafe. If an equality assessment is also considered, where those with long term conditions, health needs or other risk factors are included, excluding those people from being able to take part would potentially mean a further breach of law.
We are eager to see members of the council be empowered to continue to play a full and active role in democracy. The only way for that to happen at this point is via online, virtual meetings. As the current NALC Star Council, where our council has been recognised as exceptional in the 10,000 town, parish and community councils across the country, we understand that our actions are likely to be highlighted and have not taken these decisions lightly. However, we feel that the failings of others to understand the impact of these decisions on local councils leave us no choice.
We shall continue to protect our councillors, our officers and our residents and shall act in their best interests, as we always do. Legal does not always mean right.