Posted by: John Brace | 2nd April 2020

Regulations allow “virtual” public meetings of local councils and other local government bodies in England from Saturday 4th April 2020

Regulations allow “virtual” public meetings of local councils and other local government bodies in England from Saturday 4th April 2020

                               

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Planning Committee (Wirral Council) 19th March 2020

Cllr Ian Lewis at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Planning Committee held on the 19th March 2020 at Wallasey Town Hall

Cllr Ian Lewis at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Planning Committee held on the 19th March 2020 at Wallasey Town Hall

At Wirral Council’s last Planning Committee meeting held on the 19th March 2020 Cllr Ian Lewis referred to the Government’s intention to allow councils to hold public meetings virtually. Indeed a report on that meeting was previously published on this blog under the headline Wirral Council’s Planning Committee suspends meetings and rules due to COVID-19.

Since then the Coronavirus Act 2020 has gone through the House of Commons, House of Lords and gained Royal Assent. Section 78 refers to local authority meetings and applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England it’s down to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (currently Rt Hon Christopher Pincher MP) to come up with regulations, in Wales the Welsh Ministers to make regulations and in Northern Ireland the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland to come up with regulations that detail of how this will work in those three areas of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Regulations for England and Wales have been published with the long name of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 (which is thankfully a short 8 or so A4 pages long when printed).

These new regulations come into force on the 4th April 2020 and apply to public meetings held of various local government bodies between the 4th April 2020 and 7th May 2021.

The below applies to the part of the regulations that applies to England (although parts of the same regulations explain the situation in Wales).

To give an short example of public bodies that hold public meetings locally here in Merseyside (in England) that will be covered by this it included public meetings of Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, Liverpool City Council, Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, Sefton Borough Council, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, Merseyside Police and Crime Panel, Mersey Port Health Authority, Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and various parish councils to name but a few.

So how will public meetings be held without those participating or attending actually physically present in a room? There are various options given within the new regulations from a telephone conference, video conference, live webcast or live interactive streaming.

Public and press access to the virtual public meeting to enable them to attend or participate will by remote access.

Local government bodies can choose to not have an Annual Meeting in 2020 as appointments can be automatically extended by a further year. The new regulations also grant further flexibility in the day and time of meetings, when meetings can be cancelled, moved and the frequency changed.

These changes will take some time for everyone involved to get used to.

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