Councillors have been left “shocked” and dismayed by the Government’s announcement to end remote meetings.
Cross-party members in Bristol and South Gloucestershire have branded the decision not to extend emergency legislation beyond May 7, allowing local authorities to hold virtual meetings, as “negligent” and “ludicrous” during a pandemic.
Local Government Minister and Thornbury & Yate MP Luke Hall said in a letter to civic leaders on Thursday, that significant progress with vaccinations and pressures on parliamentary time meant the temporary rules would not be renewed.
The Government has been accused of double standards as MPs extended their own right to debate from home until June 21.
And at the same as refusing to extend the emergency legislation, Whitehall is asking for the views of local authorities on whether virtual or hybrid meetings could return as permanent fixtures under potential future changes to the law.
Cllr Claire Young said her Lib Dem group on South Gloucestershire Council was “shocked” at the decision to end remote meetings because they had been working well for every public body from parish and town councils to regional organisations such as Avon Fire Authority.
“Remote meetings have allowed members, officers, the public and the press to participate with local democracy without putting themselves or others at unnecessary risk,” she said.
“These provisions will end on May 7, at which point the vast majority of councillors and officers under 50 won’t have had their first dose of the vaccine and only a minority across all age groups will have had their second one.
“It is ludicrous to force councillors and council staff to attend meetings in a crowded room with 80 to 100 people – the sorts of numbers we would expect at an in-person full council meeting.”
Cllr Young said Mr Hall’s advice that councils should delegate decisions to senior officers so that meetings were minimised was “not an acceptable alternative when remote meetings would allow those decisions to be made democratically by elected members”.
“It is vital that local people can take part in meetings to speak up on issues they care about, challenge those taking the decisions and hold them to account,” she said.
“That won’t happen if officers are making decisions behind closed doors.”
Cllr Young said it was not clear how another of Mr Hall’s suggestions – to maintain remote access for members of the public before lockdown ended – would be supported.
“We will be having discussions with councillors and officers across South Gloucestershire and beyond in the hope that we can find a way to get the Government to change its mind,” she added.
South Gloucestershire Council leader Conservative Cllr Toby Savage said: “We share the disappointment of local authorities across the country that parliamentary time hasn’t been found to extend the legislation to explicitly allow virtual meetings.
“It has proven to be such an asset over the past year and we believe it had positive applications going forward – both in terms of improving public accessibility and transparency.
“I firmly believe parliamentary time should be made and that this matter should be prioritised.”
He said that since Thursday’s announcement he had made representations to Mr Hall on behalf of the council.
Cllr Savage said he was awaiting the final decision of an ongoing High Court case seeking to allow virtual meetings beyond May based on the argument that dialling in remotely could be legally considered as attendance in person under original 1972 legislation.
South Gloucestershire Labour group leader Cllr Pat Rooney said the ability to hold virtual meetings should now be included under the Local Government Act.
“There is clear evidence that remote meetings, especially in emergency situations, benefit all concerned by making councils more agile in the way we can operate.
“We are calling on Luke Hall to urgently address our concerns.”