The temporary legislation allowing local authorities to meet remotely expires on 6th May 2021 and the Town Council must now start planning for the return of physical meetings, while the public can still access the meeting remotely.
During the first lockdown in 2020, the Government introduced temporary legislation that allowed for local authorities (including town councils) to meet remotely to make decisions rather than in person, as this would have contravened the lockdown restrictions in force.
Despite some trepidation, the Town Council embraced the challenge of moving to remote meetings at such short notice and quickly settled in to this new method of meeting, soon realising that there were real benefits to be reaped from this new age way of meeting. This legislation is however due to expire on 6th May 2021 and all local authorities are now in the position of having to plan how to safely hold legal meetings in person.
Seaford Town Council met remotely on 27th April to discuss the options available for returning to physical meetings, while still ensuring the safety of those participating in the meeting and, just as importantly, that members of the public were still able to access and participate in the meetings.
The Town Council considered this in great detail and formulated a temporary plan to enable physical meetings safely. Due to there still being a requirement for social distancing, a big factor in the decision making was finding a meeting venue large enough to facilitate 20 councillors and additional officers while socially distanced. As a result of this, the decision was taken to approach Seaford Baptist Church to use its auditorium for Council and Committee meetings.
The auditorium also has the necessary equipment installed to enable the Town Council to livestream and record its meetings, which is equipment the Town Council does not currently have itself. Having this equipment available means that the Town Council will still be able to invite members of the public to watch the meetings online (live if they wish). Current guidance is that councils should not be inviting members of the public to attend physically until restrictions are further eased, the necessary risk assessments have taken place and the Town Council is satisfied that this can be achieved safely.
In addition to the above, the Town Council was clear that it wanted to ensure that it could continue to encourage public participation as best possible. Virtual meetings held during the past year have seen an increase in number and diversity of public participation, which the Town Council has gladly welcomed. The Town Council will therefore also be arranging a virtual meeting alongside the physical meeting to enable public participation to take place or inviting members of the public to submit written statements in advance that an officer can read aloud at the meeting. Councillors regret that these temporary arrangements will make public participation trickier than it has been in fully physical or fully remote meetings but were pleased to be able to identify two methods through which the public can continue to be involved in meetings and ensure their voices are heard, literally or figuratively!
The Town Council felt strongly that being forced to return to physical meetings in order to carry out its decision making would hinder democracy by excluding some of its members from being able to vote. The physical meeting arrangements now in place have been made with the safety of those involved as the priority but nevertheless, for more vulnerable individuals or even those who are feeling nervous about returning to such a social setting, this news of returning to physical meetings so soon has come as a blow. As such, officers have been instructed to formally write to relevant individuals and departments to ensure the Town Council’s concerns, which are likely to echo those of other local authorities too, are known to those in a position to do something with them.
The Government does currently have a call for evidence out on local authorities experiences of remote meetings, which the Town Council is very eager to take part in. The Town Council will therefore be agreeing a response to this consultation at its meeting on 20th May and will welcome comments from members of the public to take into consideration.
Along with many others, the Town Council was waiting intently on the outcome of a case considered by the High Court on 21st April, as a result of an application made by the Association of Democratic Services Officers, Lawyers in Local Government and Hertfordshire County Council for a judgment on provisions within the Local Government Act 1972 and whether this could be interpreted to allow for remote meetings. On 28th April, the High Court dismissed the application stating that primary legislation would need to be passed in order to legally support remote meetings for local authorities, which is a parliamentary duty not one of the courts.
So, in light of the above and the arrangements now somewhat reluctantly agreed by the Town Council, the first physical meeting is due to be the Town Council’s Annual Meeting on Thursday 20th May. This will be held in Seaford Baptist Church’s auditorium and members of the public will be able to watch this via live stream, catch up with the recording and if looking to participate, can join a virtual meeting to do so or submit written statements in advance.
In the run up to this meeting, the Town Council will be issuing guidance on the new meeting format and how people can continue to take part. The Town Council will then be reviewing these arrangements at its meeting on 24th June, at which point more will be known about the planned national easing of restrictions and any impact of this on its meetings.
While the Town Council was clear about its unease with returning to physical meetings at the stage, it is approaching this with the view of ensuring meetings continue to be open, transparent, accessible and safe for all involved.
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