The coronavirus pandemic has brought about fast-paced changes to the way we live and work.
The need for self-isolation and social distancing has led to a heightened focus on home and remote working, with councils exploring how to make the most of current technology to enable this.
During this time, for the health and safety of council staff and residents, all councillors are required to work from home. This makes holding formal council meetings particularly difficult, as until April 2020, the law required a quorum of attendees to be physically present in the same place.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 was introduced to enable necessary emergency measures to be implemented. Consequently, the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 sets out the overall framework within which formal online meetings will now be able to take place.
Section 78 of the Act enables local authorities to make provision for the manner in which ‘persons may attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings’ without all or any of the people required being together in the same place.
The regulations provide flexibility to councils to amend their standing orders to give effect to remote working in a way that makes sense area by area. This means that you can expect the solutions adopted by your own council to –potentially – look different to those operated by your neighbours.
During this time, it is crucial that councils’ democratic functions continue, and that the public council meetings that facilitate this can continue.
The only way to do this in the current climate is to conduct meetings online, using software applications or ‘apps’, designed for this purpose.
The LGA has developed an e-learning module for councillors that considers the most effective ways in which to do this. It looks at:
- the provisions made by the Coronavirus Act 2020 for local authorities regarding how they hold meetings
- the ways technology is currently used to broadcast council meetings to the public
- how the public needs to be able to engage in council meetings
- how a council meeting can be fully facilitated online with an online meeting app
- some examples of remote meetings from a variety of councils in England.
“This pandemic shows the need to embrace change and use technology to drive the transformation of the organisation so that we are in control, rather than just reacting to events. Allowing public participation in the current situation is something we see as a necessary and positive move.
“We can deliver this now, because we had taken the decision to do something last year and are able to build on it, rather than being under pressure and having to start from scratch.”
Cllr Tom FitzPatrick (Con), Cabinet Member for Innovation, Transformation and Performance, Norfolk County Council
“Meeting online was surprisingly seamless. Because we run the planning committee in a structured way, that definitely lent itself to it. We still managed to cover the ground and had the same length of debate.
“As regards participation, public contributions were sent in advance and read out by officers and more people logged in than ever would have attended in person.”
Cllr Alistair Strathern (Lab), Chair of the Virtual Planning Committee, Waltham Forest Council