Can you hear me? Virtual Local Authority Meetings cut out

Emergency COVID legislation, permitting local authority meetings to take place remotely, has expired. Will this delay the determination of planning applications?

15 June 2021

Under 2020 emergency COVID legislation, the ability for local authority meetings to take place remotely in England was permitted but only until 6 May 2021. In the absence of pre-COVID ‘normality’, in-person meetings remain restricted and difficult. Consequently, without the introduction of new primary legislation, planning applications face the prospect of further delays, in addition to existing interruption resulting from the pandemic.

The current situation

On 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 (the ‘Regulations’) came into force, made under section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020. Under regulation 5(1), local authorities in England and Wales were permitted to hold and attend committee meetings remotely through video, telephone and live-streaming conferencing technology. As a result, and similarly to the wider trend across the UK during lockdown, remote local authority committee meetings became the new norm and decisions relating to planning applications were able to continue. However, this was intended to be a temporary measure until 6 May 2021. This position was made clear in regulation 2(4) meaning that from 7 May 2021, only in-person meetings would be permitted.

Scottish local authorities had express provision to meet remotely prior to the pandemic. The Welsh Government passed the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, which contains provisions that came into force on 1 May, enabling Welsh local authorities to continue to meet remotely. In the absence of permanent amendment via the introduction of primary legislation, local authority meetings in England could now grind to a halt. For example, local authorities may not have venues large enough to allow all attendees to comply with social distancing. If virtual meetings do take place from 7 May, if and until there is a change, any decisions taken could potentially face legal challenge.

Calls for change

The local government sector has called for the government to legislate to permit remote local authority meetings to continue. On 25 March, the Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government wrote a letter to all Council leaders explaining that primary legislation would be required to allow remote meetings to continue and, while the option had been considered, emergency legislation could not be brought forward. While local authority meetings could not take place remotely from 7 May, the government’s own roadmap out of lockdown did not permit indoor gatherings until 17 May at the earliest. As a result of this, the government produced guidance to help councils to operate safely. This highlights the need for risk assessments, social distancing, good ventilation, the use of face coverings and screens and encourages allowing the public to access meetings remotely.

Also on 25 March, the government announced a call for evidence about local authorities’ experiences of remote meetings. This evidence gathering is to last for 12 weeks Consequently, we await an update as to whether remote meetings are likely to be reintroduced and, if so, when this would be.

As an illustration of how important this issue is to local authorities, the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO), Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and Hertfordshire County Council lodged a claim in the High Court. This sought confirmation that remote meetings could continue after the 7 May cut-off date. However, on 28 April, the claim was dismissed and the High Court concluded that:

“…once the Flexibility Regulations cease to apply, such meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location; attending a meeting at such a location means physically going to it; and being “present” at such a meeting involves physical presence at that location. 

We recognise that there are powerful arguments in favour of permitting remote meetings. But, as the consultation documents show, there are also arguments against doing so. The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so, how, and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views. These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for Parliament, not the courts”.

Therefore, until the government is able to consider the evidence submitted in the ongoing consultation and take a decision to legitimise remote local authority meetings, local authorities must find suitable venues, safe enough to conduct in-person meetings (possibly at added cost) or risk a growing backlog of planning applications during the recovery from the pandemic.

Further changes

We will continue to monitor any developments that are announced that affect local government governance and provide updates.

We regularly advise local authorities on constitutional and governance issues as well as developers and landowners navigating the planning system. If you have any queries about remote meetings or local government issues generally, please contact Cathryn Tracey or Gary Soloman.

Key contact

Cathryn Tracey

Cathryn Tracey Senior Associate

  • Planning and Compulsory Purchase
  • Renewable Energy
  • Local Government 

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