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Covid-19: Virtual planning committee meetings to end

Words: Laura Edgar
Virtual meeting / iStock-508060428

The government has confirmed that temporary guidance introduced last year that enabled local authorities in England to host virtual planning committee meetings will end on 6 May.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 gained royal assent on 25 March 2020 after being fast-tracked through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Under this emergency legislation, planning committee meetings have been allowed to be held virtually during restrictions implemented to stem the spread of Covid-19. The regulation is for meetings required to be held before 7 May 2021.

Local government minister Luke Hall has written to all local authority leaders to say extending the legislation beyond 7 May would require primary legislation.

“The government has considered the case for legislation very carefully, including the significant impact it would have on the government’s legislative programme, which is already under severe pressure in these unprecedented times. We are also mindful of the excellent progress that has been made on our vaccination programme and the announcement of the government’s roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions. Given this context, the government has concluded that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time.”

Instead, the government has updated guidance to help local authorities so they can operate “safely and securely”. For local authority meetings that take place in person, the government says the principles set out in its working safely guidance should be followed.

The guidance states that local authorities should carry out their own risk assessments and follow this guidance to ensure that physical meetings “take place safely”. The government will work with sector representative bodies “to ensure that local authorities understand the guidance and are aware of the full range of options available to them”.

Hall said: “Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time.

"As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from 7 May are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way.

“I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option.”

James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), said the decision to not extend virtual planning meetings beyond 6 May is “extremely disappointing”.

“The government’s own roadmap out of lockdown states that indoor gatherings or events – organised by a business, charity, public body or similar organisation – cannot be organised until May 17 at the earliest. Yet councils will be unable to hold remote meetings from May 7. MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least June 21 but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same.”

Jamieson urged the government to reverse this decision so that local authorities don't have to hold Covid-19-secure face-to-face council meetings until all restrictions are lifted.

“Holding face-to-face council meetings, with supporting staff, could easily involve up to 200 people in one room even before adding in members of the public and reporters. This is likely to be a significant challenge with councils, for example, having to source larger venues in order to be able to host meetings with social distancing measures in place, such as full council meetings which will need to be held following the May local elections.

“This also risks damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process.”

Before this announcement, the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire County Council lodged a legal challenge in the High Court that seeks a continuation of local authority remote meetings beyond 6 May 2021.

The two bodies and the council included an application for the court to expedite proceedings to guarantee that a decision is made before the deadline.

The Local Government Association (LGA), the National Association of Local Councils and the Welsh Government’s housing and local government minister have been listed as interested parties. They will have the opportunity to submit evidence if they wish to.

Jamieson said the LGA will provide support in these proceedings as the representative body for councils.

Read more:

Legal challenge for continuation of virtual planning meetings is lodged

Coronavirus Act allows virtual planning committee meetings

Image credit | iStock