The government has issued the regulations required for English local authorities to hold virtual public meetings, by phone or video link, during the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown.
The regulations follow the Coronavirus Act 2020, which received royal assent on 25 March.
It makes provisions for “persons to attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings without all of the persons, or without any of the persons, being together in the same place”.
Ordinarily, the 1972 Local Government Act requires councillors to be present to decide applications, but the act and regulations override this during the pandemic. The regulations came into effect on 4 April.
They aim to guarantee that local authorities can make effective and transparent decisions for various services that they provide, including planning decisions, and hold cabinet and committee meetings. They apply to all local authorities* in England.
Local authorities are still required to make meetings accessible to the public. The government said it is up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.
The regulations apply to meetings taking place before 7 May 2021.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said the change will support local authorities to keep people safe while maintaining the transparency expected in local decision-making.
“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.
“We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6 billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time.”
The government also explained it is also working to bring in a new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before 6 May 2021.
The regulations can be found on the Legislation.gov.uk website.
It is hoped that local council’s will seek to comply with the regulations so that the planning system can continue to operate. At the moment no council has published an agenda for a virtual meeting here in the Midlands but we are expecting some feedback from officers over the coming weeks and we will keep our reader’s informed.
Jonathan Jenkin, Managing Director, Planning & Design Practice Ltd