The following is emerging guidance and statements on online and hybrid meetings beyond 7 May 2021.
Publish date: 25/05/2021
Many questions have been raised following the High Court judgment in relation to the application for a declaration that current legislation permits remote meetings, which was brought by Hertfordshire County Council, LLG and ADSO. What steps can be taken now that the Flexibility Regulations have come to an end whilst adhering to the restrictions and guidance currently in place due to the pandemic, and moving forward, if the roadmap becomes interrupted.
This guidance is general in nature and must not be regarded as legal advice. Readers should take their own legal advice on the issues arising and any options being considered, taking into account risk and local circumstances.
Hertfordshire County Council & Ors v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government  EWHC 1093 (Admin) (28 April 2021) Judgement
The judgement has now been published and confirms when the Coronavirus Act powers lapse, council meetings will have to be held in person. New primary legislation is required to allow councils to meet and make decisions using virtual technology.
On 29 April, Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Luke Hall issued a letter to council leaders following the court hearing providing clarification and further guidance on the safe use of council offices.
LGA press release and sector response
A recent member survey highlighted that 83 per cent of councils said that they would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings both online and in a hybrid way once the coronavirus emergency was over if they had the power.
On 25 March 2021, Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Luke Hall issued a letter to the sector to update on the Government's position on remote council meetings. In it the Government outlined some practical steps that councils should consider to minimise the risk of face to face meetings as the Government roadmap progresses. This included a paper on the safe use of council buildings and suggestions to delegate decision making until the council and its members were able to meet in a safe setting. It was also suggested that councils could consider holding physical meetings again after the 17 May milestone when indoor activity can resume.
Central government call for evidence
The Government launched a call for evidence on the use of current arrangements and to gather views on the question of whether there should be permanent arrangements and if so, for which meetings. We are encouraging councils to submit to the Government's call for evidence on the use of virtual arrangements to inform an evidence base to support new legislation on this issue.
Centre for Public Scrutiny
COVID-19 Guide 1: behaviour and etiquette for remote meetings
This is the first of five guides for councillors (and those supporting them) on managing some of the challenges associated with carrying out their governance roles during the COVID-19 crisis.
It complements detailed guidance produced by the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Lawyers in Local Government on the remote working Regulations.
Government guidance has been issued for local authorities to apply the COVID-19 precautions to ensure meetings take place safely, and they have updated the guidance on the safe use of council buildings to highlight ways in which you can, if necessary, minimise the risk of face-to-face meetings, and we 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
Ministerial Advice on Physical Meetings
The letter from the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government Luke Hall highlighted the following advice on physical meetings:
If your council is concerned about holding physical meetings you may want to consider resuming these after 17 May, at which point it is anticipated that a much greater range of indoor activity can resume in line with the Roadmap, such as allowing up to 1,000 people to attend performances or sporting events in indoor venues, or up to half-capacity (whichever is lower).
"Finally, while you do have a legal obligation to ensure that the members of the public can access most of your meetings, I would encourage you to continue to provide remote access to minimise the need for the public to attend meetings physically until at least 21 June, at which point it is anticipated that all restrictions on indoor gatherings will have been lifted in line with the Roadmap. However, it is for individual local authorities to satisfy themselves that they have met the requirements for public access."