Local government lawyers are asking the High Court to declare that councils can continue to hold meetings remotely after the government decided not to extend emergency legislation.
Current coronavirus regulations allow councils to hold meetings remotely until 7 May. Extending the regulations to meetings beyond 7 May would require emergency legislation.
In a letter to council leaders last week, local government minister Luke Hall said the government's legislative programme was 'already under severe pressure' and it was not possible to bring forward emergency legislation. The government has issued a call for evidence on current arrangements.
Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) and Hertfordshire County Council have asked the High Court to make a declaration on whether they can continue to hold meetings remotely past 6 May.
LLG said Hall’s letter made the need for its court hearing more pressing.
LLG said: ‘Councils are already actively considering the options the minister has suggested, including looking at alternative larger meeting venues at significant extra cost. The proposal to delegate significant decisions to officers is likely to be viewed as undermining democratic accountability due to the fact that such decisions are not subject to direct member involvement. Given the circumstances authorities find themselves in due to the imminent loss of virtual meeting provision, they now face unpalatable decisions, which include restricting member attendance and a reduction in members roles in decision making, whilst attempting to keep the machinery of local government moving.
‘LLG and ADSO remain fully committed to presenting our case at the High Court hearing time-tabled to be heard before the end of April 2021.’
The Local Government Association is supporting the proceedings. Chairman Councillor James Jamieson pointed out that MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until 21 June ‘but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same’.
He said: ‘We urge the government to reverse this decision and not force councils to have to hold Covid-19 secure face-to-face council meetings until all restrictions are lifted.
‘Holding face-to-face council meetings, with supporting staff, could easily involve up to 200 people in one room even before adding in members of the public and reporters. This is likely to be a significant challenge with councils, for example, having to source larger venues in order to be able to host meetings with social distancing measures in place, such as full council meetings which will need to be held following the May local elections.
‘This also risks damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process.’