It is time for business as usual with councils but the government is not helping us. It has refused to extend emergency legislation that allows local councils to meet online rather in stuffy council chambers. That decision is being challenged in the high court but unless the action by councils wins, it creates a dilemma for those councils now forced to meet in person but have no space to do so.
Ludlow Town Council is to meet tonight in a Zoom meeting. The council is being asked to agree to limit business at the next meeting and to transfer most decision-making to the town clerk under emergency powers.
There is no longer any emergency. If the council allows emergency powers to be used in a non-emergency it will no longer be a democratic body. I hope councillors will vote against this wrecking ball to local democracy tonight.
A motion I wrote back in late February called for councils to have the flexibility to continue virtual meetings alongside in person meetings after 6 May, when current legislation allowing online meetings expires. Unfortunately, the government didn’t agree and that has left many councils in a quandary.
Shropshire Council, for example, has 74 members and up to thirty officers and members of the public in attendance. There is no way that the council chamber can be used in a social distanced way. The council has yet to announce its plans for the 20 May meeting. Ludlow Town Council meets tonight (26 April) for a meeting delayed by the mourning of the Duke of Edinburgh (the only council to delay meetings as far as I can see).
I always sigh when the paperwork for Ludlow Town Council. This agenda is 191 pages long. Browse down to page 95 for Agenda 14a – “Formal Council Meeting Arrangements”. That announces that the next full council on 24 May, will be held in the Methodist Church in Broad Street. That makes sense. The ground floor of the Methodist Church seats 120 people in ordinary times. The town council is proposing to limit this to seventeen – fifteen councillors, the clerk and a minute taker. With the minute taker, clerk and mayor, possibly the deputy mayor, on stage, we are talking of one council member for every nine seats. The public will sit in the gallery above and will be allowed to speak from the gallery. The church has an excellent audio system with an audio loop. It is better for council meetings than the Guildhall in many ways, except that it does not allow councillors to sit around a table.
So far so good.
But Ludlow Town Council also plans to reduce the agenda on 26 May. No clear reason is given for this. Councillors will be asked to agree election of the mayor and deputy, along with Committee Chairs. They will also adopt standing orders, financial regulations, asset register and risk register, and council policies. Councillors will be asked to agree approval of the Annual Governance and Accounting Statements (AGAR) in June and agree to the co-option for three councillor vacancies within 35 days of the 6 May election.
And that’s it. Other items that will normally be debated and decided by councillors will be delegated to the town clerk under emergency powers. Although councillors will be consulted, this is wrong in principle. There is no longer an emergency. Town council committees can meet in person if they are not allowed to meet virtually. There is enough room in the Methodist Church and other venues to allow social distanced meetings.
The council paper states that emergency powers were used in March and April 2020. That is irrelevant. We are no longer in an emergency. If that were the case, the government would have extended the emergency powers under the Coronavirus Act. There is no case for emergency powers at this point.
Regulations to allow councils to hold virtual meetings came into force on 4 April 2020. However, ministers announced on 25 March that they had decided not to extend the legislation beyond its expiry on 6 May. Councils across the country were outraged, so much so they have gone to the high court arguing that legislation should be interested as allowing virtual meetings. A decision is expected in the next few days but that will be too late for tonight’s Ludlow Town Council meeting.
Local government is a democratic process and must remain so. The proposal before Ludlow Town Council tonight transfers powers to the town clerk. The clerk will have the authority to override council members, even if they have reached a consensus.
There is no valid reason for this wrecking ball to local democracy. I hope councillors will reject the proposal.