Local councils have been meeting online during the pandemic. After a few teething problems, the practice of meeting online has worked well. But yesterday the government declared councils must meet in public after 7 May. Many councillors think this is too early. A good many councils, including Ludlow Town Council and Shropshire Council, do not have suitable buildings to accommodate all their councillors, let alone members of the public, while social distancing remains in place.

Will any councillors or members of the public want to attend the cramped Ludlow Town Council meeting in the Guildhall on 24 May? Or the Shropshire Council meeting four days earlier, with its 74 councillors and at least 25 officers and public attending in a chamber set out like a university lecture hall? This is retrograde move that will reduce the effectiveness of local democracy. Not for once, ministers are out of touch with reality.

The compulsory return to face to face for councils is only happening because local government has long been an afterthought in the government’s deliberations (and, for that matter, allocation of funding). Parliament has run out of time to debate the required legislation that would extend powers for online meetings. Faced with a mess of their own making, Ministers are bragging up face to face meetings up as a return to normality in a letter  and guidance to councils. But the upbeat talk cannot disguise that it be difficult for many cash strapped councils to hold democratic meetings until social distancing rules are lifted.

The government’s move is set to heap pressure on councils at a point where they are already stretched dealing with the May elections and finding ways to help return local economies to normal.

This is parliament at its weakest – unable to deal with the essential business of the day. That is the fault of ministers and parliamentary business managers. I hope MPs and councils will protest loudly that this is a retrograde step that will damage local democracy (see Philip Dunne’s letter below).

The pandemic created an opportunity to get councils to a position that they should have been at a while ago. Reaching out to a wider community using technology. We must not lose that. The government is encouraging councils to allow public access online while councillors are meeting in public. There is a legal requirement that councils must meet in public except when they can’t. But being face to face and online does add extra complexity and costs for councils, especially smaller councils.

Ministers have launched a consultation on whether councils could meet online as many do in Scotland. That is welcome but belated. Meanwhile, ministers are facing action in the courts being brought by councils of all sizes from across the country who are opposing the enforced return to face to face meetings before it’s safe or practical to do so.

Bromfield Parish Council was one of many that lobbied their MP to ask for online meetings to be retained. This was Philip Dunne’s response:

Thank you for your email of 10th March on behalf of the Chair of Bromfield Parish Council.

I am aware of the considerable interest from local authorities including parish councils to continue with the flexibility of virtual meetings. As you will know, the regulations under which this temporary flexibility was made will expire on 7th May 2021. While a further extension would require primary legislation, I have passed on the request to my ministerial colleagues, who I know are considering possible next steps.

As Parliament is due to consider measures for the House of Commons to continue to sit in virtual session with remote participation, I think it highly likely that similar measures will be proposed for local government at all levels. I am also sure this will be communicated to relevant councils if and when this happens.

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