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Should councils be able to hold virtual meetings?

  • by JW

“The overwhelming majority of councils want hybrid meeting powers.” [Local Government Association]


The Rural Services Network (the RSN) is looking to the future of virtual council meetings:

Under 50-year-old law, councils are required to hold certain statutory meetings, such as for planning and full council, in person. However, during the pandemic, councils were temporarily allowed to hold these meetings virtually until May 2021.

In February 2021, Jackie Weaver, who oversaw a famously raucous online council meeting, felt that, following the pandemic, councils should be allowed to continue doing virtual meetings:

“I think all the evidence is out there to show that actually Zoom has done more… [and] has been instrumental in getting people involved.”

A month later, and the Local Government Association (the LGA) were “very disappointed” that the government couldn’t find time to extend the legislation allowing authorities to continue meeting online.

A year later, and councillors, officials and academics were highlighting the value of virtual meetings:

Unlike many European countries, local authorities in the UK have relatively little power and funding, yet are tasked with representing large numbers of people, notes Oliver Escobar, senior lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh university. Live streaming of sessions is more established elsewhere in Europe. He says that embracing technology – so long as costs are reasonable – could help communities in England and elsewhere in the UK tackle the many issues they face in the 21st Century. “If we believe that local democracy needs to be revitalised and invested in, then to me digital infrastructure will be part of it.”

The LGA has just published research which highlights that the “overwhelming majority of councils want hybrid meeting powers”:

The LGA, which represents councils, is warning that the recruitment and retention of councillors, particularly those balancing career or care commitments, will be hampered if powers are not given to councils to be able to hold statutory meetings in a hybrid manner.

One in 10 councils surveyed had a councillor who had stepped down in their authority since May 2021 due to the requirement for them to attend council meetings in-person, with expectations around the use of technology changing considerably due to the experience of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as reported by the RSN, a debate in the House of Lords on the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill took place on 13th July and discussed an amendment which would allow councils to hold virtual council meetings if they wished – and this was passed, meaning that the bill will continue its progress through parliament, together with this amendment.