Virtual council meetings to end after High Court ruling

Broadland Council's virtual meeting on Zoom

Broadland Council's virtual meeting on Zoom - Credit: Broadland Council

Norfolk councils are having to find alternative venues for their annual meetings next month - after the High Court ruled they cannot continue with remote meetings.

It is understood Norfolk County Council is looking into whether it could host its annual meeting at the Norfolk Showground, because the chamber at County Hall is not deemed COVID-safe for more than 80 county councillors and officers.

And, for similar reasons, Norwich City Council’s annual meeting and mayor making is likely to be switched from City Hall to St Andrew’s Hall.

As part of the Coronavirus Act 2020, mandatory local authority meetings could be conducted remotely, such as via virtual Zoom meetings, from April last year until May 7 this year.

During the pandemic, hundreds of meetings have been held online, including in Norfolk and Waveney.

But the government said it would not legislate to extend that beyond May 7, so physical meetings, rather virtual ones, must resume.

Hertfordshire County Council brought a bid against that and, at a hearing last week, Dame Victoria Sharp and Mr Justice Chamberlain were asked to consider whether remote meetings in England could continue under existing 1972 legislation regulating local government.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) was "supportive in principle" of the proposed claim, arguing it could be met by the court giving its opinion on what "meeting", "place" and "present" mean in the existing law.

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Lawyers for Hertfordshire County Council argued the word "place" could include metaphorical places such as cyberspace or a website.

However, judges dismissed the claim, concluding primary legislation would be needed to extend the use of remote meetings.

In a ruling on Wednesday, they said: "We can readily accept that 'meeting' can in some context encompass virtual or remote meetings: since March 2020 it has become common to refer to a 'Zoom meeting'.

"But in other contexts, 'meeting' would not carry that meaning. If a meeting is to be 'either in or outside London' one would not expect it to be conducted online."

The pair said local authority gatherings are an important part of government and require certainty on what it means to attend a meeting.

They added after the regulations expire "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".

The judges continued: "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."

A Norfolk County Council spokesperson said: “Now we have clarity from the judge, we will activate our contingency plans for the resumption of face-to-face council meetings, while observing social distancing and other Covid regulations that remain in force.”

Broadland and South Norfolk Council are looking at using the Norfolk showgrounds for their bigger meetings, while North Norfolk District Council is considering whether larger meetings could have to be hosted elsewhere.

A spokesperson for West Norfolk Council said: "Several options are currently being considered as to where and how to hold borough council meetings.

"Covid control measures will be in place at the venue and we plan to continue to stream the meetings for members of the public to watch on our YouTube channel."

Breckland leader, Sam Chapman-Allen, was left waiting after Attleborough Town Council meeting was ca

Breckland Council leader Sam Chapman-Allen. - Credit: Archant

At a Breckland meeting on Thursday, council leader Sam Chapman-Allen said he would have liked virtual meetings to continue but said democracy will not stop.

He said: "Local government will roll up its sleeves to any challenge regardless of what it is.

"At no point throughout the pandemic has anything failed to be delivered, any decision failed to be made or for any scrutiny to be undertaken

" I am a little bit disappointed at the high court ruling but that doesn't mean to say that democracy will not continue."

It has also created an issue for town and parish councils.

Cromer Town Council was today having to measure the community centre it meets in to establish if it could host meetings in a Covid-safe way.

James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "It is very disappointing that this last avenue to allow councils to hold online and hybrid meetings whilst Covid-19 restrictions are still in force has not been successful.

“Councils, by law, have to hold annual meetings within 21 days following local elections so many will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person.

"Councils want to continue to have powers to hold online and hybrid meetings even when restrictions have been lifted."

He added: "The government gave clear evidence at the hearing in support of allowing the option of online and hybrid meetings.

Unfortunately, the judgment is clear that primary legislation is needed to allow councils to use technology to hold meetings."

An MHCLG spokesperson said: "We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.

“Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after May 6 and should continue to prepare accordingly.”

A virtual meeting saw Handforth Parish Council - and Jackie Weaver - catapulted to fame after an online call where councillors traded insults went viral.

Parish clerk Jackie Weaver during a meeting of Handforth Parish Council which has become an unlikely internet sensation

Jackie Weaver. - Credit: PA

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