The High Court has ruled that council meetings in England must once again take place in person from 7 May, the day after the local elections, when temporary regulations allowing remote meetings under the Coronavirus Act 2020 expire.
A case brought by The Association of Democratic Services Officers, Lawyers in Local Government and Hertfordshire County Council, with the support of communities secretary Robert Jenrick, sought to establish via a “declaratory judgement” that councils already had the necessary powers to continue remote online meetings under the 1972 Local Government Act.
The Act provides councils with scope for action in certain circumstances that it was thought might apply as the legislation had been passed at a time when virtual meetings could not have been envisaged.
However the High Court has ruled that the Act requires local government meetings to take place in person, and that any change to this requirement would require primary legislation.
In April last year the government introduced emergency legislation which relaxed the requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person, permitting them to meet remotely instead. But that legislation expires next Thursday, on the day of the local elections.
A survey by the Local Government Association found that four in five councils wanted to carry on holding remote meetings after the coronavirus pandemic.
The Local Government Chronicle reported that councils were concerned that they would have to use larger venues in order to maintain social distancing, generating extra costs or obliging them to limit attendance.
However despite calls from the local government sector to permit councils to meet virtually beyond 6 May, and the Labour Party offering to help find the parliamentary time to pass the necessary legislation, the government decided against extending the regulations last month.
Local government minister Luke Hall said: “While local authorities have been able to hold meetings in person at any time during the pandemic with appropriate measures in place, the successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of COVID-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from 7 May”.
He said while he recognised there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings, “ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the COVID-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely”.
Addressing council leaders, he added: “While you do have a legal obligation to ensure that members of the public can access most of your meetings, I would encourage you to continue to provide remote access to minimise the need for the public to attend meetings physically until at least 21 June, at which point it is anticipated that all restrictions on indoor gatherings will have been lifted in line with the roadmap.”
Alan Connett, Devon County Council Liberal Democrat group leader, said: “Making large groups of people meet indoors for meetings which often last more than two hours, when we’re trying to stop the spread of COVID-19, is unbelievably daft.
“This affects councillors and council staff. Some may have had COVID jabs, some not and some may have clinically vulnerable family at home.
“It should be up to our local councils to decide when it is safe to return - not the Conservative government.”
The High Court ruling from Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Chamberlain acknowledged that the issue is contentious: “The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views.
However it was clear that such a decision would require primary legislation: “These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts.”
James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association (who is also a Conservative councillor) described the decision as “very disappointing”, adding that councils “will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person”.
Despite indoor coronavirus restrictions continuing until 21 June, and MPs being able to attend Parliament remotely until then, councils are required by law to hold annual meetings within 21 days of the local elections on 6 May.
Exeter City Council’s annual meeting of 39 members plus officials is accordingly now scheduled to take place in the Guildhall on 18 May and Devon County Council’s annual meeting of 60 members plus officials is scheduled to take place in the council chamber at County Hall on 27 May.
Meetings of all other local councils, including the Dartmoor and Exmoor national park authorities, Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, the Devon & Cornwall Police and Crime Panel and all parish and town councils are also affected by the decision.
UPDATE 4 May 2021: Exeter City Council is considering holding its annual meeting on 18 May at Exeter Corn Exchange, instead of the Guildhall, and Devon County Council is considering holding is annual meeting on 27 May at Sandy Park instead of County Hall.