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Local democracy survives Covid-19 | Feature

Attending a local authority meeting is a rare event in the life of any member of the electorate. A concerned citizen might address a meeting, hand in a petition, or sometimes shout rowdily from the public gallery, but the minutia of standing orders for the conduct of meetings are of little concern to the average voter.

Meetings procedures for seasoned councillors, however, are an altogether more important concern.

Political meetings – or, meetings involving politicians, most of whom are well-able to use procedural points to political advantage – can be difficult; but they are essential to the proper running of large parts of the public sector.

Given the very real impact that local authority services have on the quality of life of the population – often on some of the most vulnerable – it matters whether you could represent the interests of your constituents in the three minutes you are given to speak; or how you can seek to amend a controversial motion that dictates a significant council policy; or raise a point of order. Meetings are the occasion where decision-makers can make a significant difference to their communities, and opposition groups can hold those with power to account. (And, politics aside, the courts have quashed many a local authority decision for a procedural misstep.)

And the nature of local authority business means that meetings are not in short supply: planning committees, licensing committees; scrutiny meetings and meetings of audit committees, joint health and wellbeing boards, and the like. Local authority functions extend from child protection to bin collection, from highway repair to waste recycling, from schools places to consumer protection, from birth registration to the upkeep of cemeteries – to name a few. And whilst council constitutions contain emergency provisions that can enable officers to take urgent decisions, the nature of much council business demands the involvement of those with a democratic mandate.

And what of local democracy in a time of Covid-19? All these meetings take place in public, in physical spaces with real people raising their real hands to indicate their assent or dissent to any given proposal often set out in some detail in lengthy papers – hard copies of which are freely available.

Much of the rules for meetings of elected representatives derive from the Local Government Act 1972, a significant piece of legislation made in a pre-internet era when the idea of holding a virtual meeting would have been seen as pure science fiction.

But from 1972 onwards it was generally understood by local authority advisers that meetings of committees of councillors had to take place in a physical space. Schedule 12 of the 1972 Act stipulates that to trigger a meeting a notice had to be issued giving the time and date and details of the ‘place’ where the meeting would be held. Alongside the notice a ‘summons to attend’ was issued to the councillors, a quarter of whom had to be ‘present’ for the meeting to be quorate. And any business could only be decided upon by those ‘present and voting’.

Two further important aspects of local authority meetings have also featured since 1972 – first, meetings (subject to certain limited exceptions) are to be in public, with the press able to be present to observe and report on the proceedings; and, secondly, documents – officer reports and background papers – are to be freely available when the Notice of the meeting is advertised. (The only innovation was in 2014 when the when, in a nod to the smartphone era, the government permitted council meetings to be filmed and broadcast.)

By mid-February of this year most councils had conducted their full council meetings using these tried and tested rules and had set their annual budgets, determined the council tax in readiness for the forthcoming year, and passed motions either decrying, or looking forward to, a post-Brexit future. And then …. normal life was suspended.

With the introduction of confinement and social distancing – and absent any power to hold a meeting of elected representatives remotely – this near 50-year-old way of administering local democracy was in danger of coming to a rather abrupt halt.

Meetings in a time of Covid-19

The Coronavirus Bill was introduced on 19 March 2020 and, after some lobbying from the Local Government Association, provisions relating to local authority meetings were inserted on 23 March 2020 at the committee stage and were approved without debate. The Coronavirus Act 2020 became law on the 25 March 2020 and section 78 – the relevant regulation-making power for local authority proceedings – came immediately into effect. On the 4 April 2020 the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 came into force.

The main thrust of the regulations is to vary the concepts of ‘place’ and ‘attendance’. Being present in a place for a meeting can now include being in an ‘electronic, digital or virtual’ location. And the conditions for ‘attending’ such a meeting will be met when attendees can hear (and where practicable) see, all the other members and members of the public who are exercising their right to speak, and to be seen and heard by those members of the public and press who are observing.

The practicalities of arranging voting, of access to documents and enabling the public and press to attend remotely is left for each authority to determine through amendments to its standing orders, though participation by electronic means, according to the regulations, could include: telephone conference, video conference, live webcasts, and live interactive streaming.

So, as civil liberties groups decry the human rights implication of the emergency powers in the new Coronavirus Act, for local government at least, democratic debate and decision-making lives on. As the explanatory note to the regulations says, ‘The measures will help local authorities redeploy their resources to deal with the pandemic and ensure essential business continues whilst upholding democratic principles and protecting the health and safety of members, officers and the public in line with official public health guidance. The local authority sector has asked for the flexibilities to be in place as soon as possible and it is clearly vital that this is achieved.’

The regulations are to remain until no later than 2021, although it will be interesting to see how public authorities take to the new arrangements. In Wales virtual attendance at meetings has been recognised in legislation since 2011 and works well. As with many changes since the lockdown, things may not go back to how they were. And if public participation and local reporting increase as journalists can watch recorded webcasts of meetings at the time of their choosing there may even be good public interest reasons to keep the Covid-19 arrangements as a permanent feature of local democracy.

For now local authorities eager to get on with the business of delivering essential services in these difficult times are seeking the help of their IT departments … and looking closely at the robustness of internet connections.

 

Nick Graham has recently been appointed as director for legal and democratic services for the new Buckinghamshire Council


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