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GBC Sends Appeal to Jenrick Seeking Extension of Virtual Meetings Rule

Published on: 2 Feb, 2021
Updated on: 3 Feb, 2021

An Open Letter To The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government

“Dear Mr Jenrick,

“Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020

“Since October last year, when the chairman of the Local Government Association, Cllr James Jamieson, wrote to you regarding the above regulations we have witnessed two important developments. First, vaccines we passionately hope will see us out of the pandemic and into a safer future.

“The government has set out the rollout of this vaccine that will take time, probably many months and we are all aware of the patience we must exercise while this happens and continue to provide a safe environment for our councillors, staff and the public.

“Second, we have seen the appearance of new and more contagious variants of the virus. This was not foreseen and, while we hope such developments will not recur as we continue with our managed and stringent approach, further such outbreaks may not be discounted.

“From our lockdown position at the end of January we reiterate the request of the chairman to extend the ability for councils to hold meetings flexibly beyond May 7, 2021 while we continue to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. “We cannot be certain how the pandemic will evolve over the next few months or year, but it remains essential for our councillors to have the ability to hold committee, Executive, and council meetings and make decisions without the need for all those attending the meeting to be physically present.

“Time is passing and with effectively only three months until the regulations expire, we as a council implore you to enact such legislation to allow us to continue to provide a safe environment for our local democracy to function. Further, we would ask you to consider seriously and favourably the introduction of legislation that gives local authorities maximum flexibility to hold meetings totally, or partly, remotely in the future.

“Councils around the country, including our own, have responded during the course of the past 10 months to put in place equipment and training for both councillors and officers to continue to operate and succeed in delivering business as usual for our meetings. No mean feat.”Everywhere, and especially in Guildford, we have seen a boost in attendance at our virtual meetings as our councillors have not had to travel across the borough with all of the associated obstacles of transportation and care provision.

“Below are personal messages to you from two of our chairmen running key meetings virtually:

’As chairman of the Planning Committee, at Guildford Borough Council, I would like to fully support the ability to continue to hold Planning Committee meetings virtually. Since May 2020, we have successfully held 11 Planning Committee meetings online.

‘Public participation in Planning Committee meetings is a very important part of the process, and we recognise they are always some of the best-attended meetings in the council diary. This reflects the fact that planning, development and housing are key priorities for the council. We have ensured residents are able to attend virtual meetings and, where applicable, be involved in our planning decisions.

‘Virtual meetings also enable the council to hold special meetings of the Planning Committee, to consider large applications, which frequently involves considerable public interest, in a safe manner, which does not compromise the health of its residents, councillors or staff.

‘Virtual meetings have afforded almost 100% attendance by councillors at the Planning Committee meetings to date, as it enables flexibility by preventing the need to have to travel for protracted periods. This same flexibility is also afforded to staff and residents, which can be seen only as a positive for the democratic process as a whole.

‘I therefore implore the government to consider passing legislation to enable the continuation of virtual meetings indefinitely.’ (Cllr Fiona White (Westborough), chairman of the Planning Committee).

‘For effective scrutiny at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee in Guildford, the introduction of virtual meetings, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, has proved to be successful and effective. ‘The new, flexible way of working has enabled scrutineering work at the council to continue during testing times, with no loss of debate or ability to challenge and hold decision-makers to account and has supported improved councillor attendance and engagement.

‘It has also enabled continued access to the public. Indeed, even if the threat of coronavirus was over by May and a return to face-to-face meetings considered safe for all, I feel it would be judicious to maintain the improvements created from our flexibility to attend and participate at virtual meetings.’ Cllr Paul Spooner (Ash South & Tongham) chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee.

“Like so many local authorities, we continue to invest in our technical capability to support our decision-making processes as we move out of lockdown and into an environment with more freedom, as described by the Minister of State for Communities and Local Government (Lord Greenhalgh).”He said on June 23, 2020 that the regulations enable all local authority meetings to be held remotely and do not preclude physical meetings or a hybrid form of meeting where these can be held in accordance with public health regulations and guidance. He suggested it is for each local authority to determine what is appropriate in their specific circumstances, taking legal advice as necessary (HL/5546).

“We anticipate enormous logistical difficulties in managing a return to face-to-face meetings after May 7 if we are required to continue maintaining social distancing, and thereby having to limit the number of councillors and members of the public attending those meetings. This may mean we have to seek alternative, much larger accommodation for full Council meetings, which will have additional cost implications.”Of course, many large venues are already being used as vaccination centres so this may not actually be possible. Furthermore, if we had to use an alternative venue for a council meeting, we would not be able to webcast the meeting.

“You have already indicated publicly that you would like to see the continuation of remotely-held local authority meetings, and with the prime minister’s recent announcement that he feels it ‘too early’ to judge if the current lockdown will end in the spring, we feel it essential that, as a matter of urgency, you provide support in terms of legislation to enable us to operate in a safe environment as is our duty, as an employer and as a democratic authority to put the safety of our councillors, staff and residents first.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Joss Bigmore, Leader of the Council
James Whiteman, Managing DirectorCc
Surrey Leaders’ Group
Angela Richardson MP
Sir Paul Beresford MP
The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP
Jonathan Lord MP
David Munro, Surrey PCC
Association of Democratic Services Officers
Local Government Association
All Parish Councils (Guildford Borough)

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