Among the many coronavirus challenges local government faced in the past year, ensuring that democracy continued to function turned out to be one of the simplest.
Moving council meetings online has worked very well (aside from a few amusing Zoom hiccups) and has arguably made local democracy more accessible than ever before.
Many councils have seen sharp increases in public participation rates over the past year, and a more flexible approach has made life much easier for those councillors, officers, and members of the public who have disabilities, mobility issues, or caring responsibilities.
“Many councils have seen sharp increases in public participation rates”
This makes the Government’s refusal to find a few hours of Parliamentary time to extend legislation that allows remote council meetings to continue beyond 6 May so baffling.
Why is it deemed acceptable for MPs to continue to debate and vote remotely, but not councillors?
Just a few weeks ago, the Government found time to change the law so that minister Suella Braverman could take paid maternity leave. But they won’t find time to protect thousands of councillors who, for their own safety, may be unable or unwilling to attend meetings in person?
As things stand, councils will have to choose between risking decisions of online meetings being challenged in court on grounds of meetings not being valid, breaking COVID-19 regulations by hosting an indoor gathering of more than 30 people that would still exclude many councillors, or postponing AGMs and other vital meetings.
None of these is an acceptable solution. But will the Government see sense?