Covid - 19 Pandemic
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 2020 Regulations”) came in to force on 4th April. Broadly speaking, the 2020 Regulations enable local councils to hold remote meetings (including by video and telephone conferencing) for a specified period until May next year. They also remove the requirement to hold an annual meeting. The 2020 Regulations apply to local council meetings, committee and sub-committee meetings in England.
Background to the 2020 Regulations
The COVID-19/ Coronavirus pandemic and the unprecedented in peacetime Government measures in response to the crisis (e.g. prohibitions on gatherings, social distancing, self-isolation and shielding of those deemed to be the most vulnerable) have meant that the requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person with all members present in one place cannot be met. The statutory requirements for meetings are mainly contained in the Local Government Act 1972 (“the 1972 Act”) and the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 (“the 1960 Act”).
In recognition of the problem of holding and attending meetings, and further to the lobbying of NALC and others, the Government included s.78 in the Coronavirus Act 2020. This section gave the Secretary of State the power to make Regulations to make provisions for the holding of meetings. The 2020 Regulations set out those provisions.
What are the main provisions for local councils?
The relevant Regulations for local authorities are as follows:
Regulation 2 – the 2020 Regulations apply to local authority meetings that are required to be held, or held, before 7th May 2021. The date could be brought forward if Government rules are relaxed.
Regulation 3 – parish councils in England are included within the definition of “local authority” in the 2020 Regulations. In NALC’s view, the current Government guidance means that parish meetings should not take place in person, including the annual meeting of the electors (known as the Annual Parish Meeting).
Regulation 4 – this provides that where an appointment would otherwise be made or is required to be made at an annual meeting of a local authority, the appointment continues until the next annual meeting of the authority or until such time as that authority may determine (Regulation 4 (2). This would apply to the election of the chairman, the first business at the annual council meeting. Therefore, the current chairman will remain in place until an annual meeting is held (possibly next year) unless the council decide to elect a replacement earlier.
Regulation 5 – this permits the holding of remote meetings. The effect of the Regulation is that persons attending a local council meeting do not need to be in the same place. “Place” means more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers (Regulation 5 (1)). To attend a meeting remotely a member in remote attendance must meet specified conditions (see below).
Regulation 5 (6) also enables local councils to make standing orders to specify (i) how voting will be carried out, (ii) how members and the public can access documents and (iii) how remote access of the press and public by electronic means will take place. Councils should make these decisions based on their own needs and capacity. Local factors such as broadband strength may also determine what methods they use. NALC also provide guidance on holding remote meetings.
Regulation 6 – confirms that being present at a local council meeting includes being present through remote attendance. The Regulation also disapplies paragraph 7 of Schedule 12 to the 1972 Act. This means there is no requirement for a parish council to hold its annual meeting although a council may do so if they so choose. However paragraph 8 of Schedule 12 has not been disapplied. Paragraph 8 requires a local council to hold in a year not less than three meetings in addition to the annual meeting. NALC believe that this should also have been disapplied. The equivalent paragraphs have been disapplied for principal authorities (paragraphs 1 and 2 of Schedule 12).
Regulation 13 – s.1 (4) (a) of the 1960 Act has been amended so that public notice of the time and place of the meeting is deemed to be given if published on the relevant principal authority’s website. In NALC’s view the notice could be placed on the local council’s website or in a prominent physical place to meet the advertising requirements contained in Schedule 12 of the 1972 Act. Councils should take account of social distancing requirements before deciding to put notices in physical spaces NALC’s view is that a council’s decision making is unlikely to be challenged if it only places the notice on its own website.
Regulation 17 – confirms that a local council complies with Regulation 8 of the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (decisions and background papers to be made available to the public) by making the written record and any background papers available for inspection by publishing them on their website; or by such other means that the council considers appropriate.
What are the specified conditions to enable local councils to meet remotely?
Regulation 5(2) of the 2020 Regulations provides that a member in remote attendance attends the meeting at any time if the member is able at that time:
a) to hear, and where practicable see, and be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by, the other members in attendance, b) to hear, and where practicable see, and be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by, any members of the public entitled to attend the meeting in order to exercise a right to speak at the meeting, and c) to be so heard and, where practicable, be seen by any other members of the public attending the meeting.
All of the above conditions must be satisfied.
These conditions allow members to join via a video link system or by telephone so long as every member can be heard by every other member and the public.
All members, clerk and other staff, and any members of the public will be in attendance for the purposes of the 2020 Regulations if they are in remote attendance. The provisions in Regulation 5 will apply notwithstanding any standing orders or rules to the contrary.
Existing provisions that have not been specifically disapplied still apply, including the notice requirements in Schedule 12 of the 1972 Act.
Clearly, the following guidance from NALC is that
• The 2020 Regulations permit the holding of remote meetings, with conditions.
• Local councils can decide the methods they will use to facilitate the holding of remote meetings, based on their own needs and capacity. There may be practical issues around the holding of electronic meetings with local factors such as broadband strength that need to be considered when determining what methods they use.
• There is no requirement to hold an annual meeting. Where an appointment would otherwise be made or is required to be made at an annual meeting, the appointment continues until the next annual meeting of the authority or until such time as that authority may determine. Therefore, the current chairman will remain in place until an annual meeting is held (possibly next year) unless the council decide to elect a replacement earlier.
Similarly, the other appointments of Vice-Chairman, Lead Members and Appointments to External Bodies will continue to apply. To refresh your memories, at last year’s Annual Council Meeting the following occurred, as follows:
Cllr Rob Mills was proposed and unanimously elected as Chairman.
Cllr Cathy Mills was elected as Vice-Chairman
The following appointments were made: (a) Planning: Cllrs Mark Clark and Rob Mills; (b) Highways and Road Safety: Cllrs Rob Mills, Cathy Mills and Kendal Golding; (c) Rights of Way: Cllr Cathy Mills; (d) Westmeston Common Land: Cllr Tessa Haughton; (e) Church Corner Maintenance: Cllr Cathy Mills; (f) Two Members as Internal Auditors: Cllrs Mark Clark and Cathy Mills; (g) Website – two Members as monitors: Cllrs Mark Clark and Cathy Mills; (h) Environment and Tree Warden: Cllr Vincent Tickner. With regard to the Westmeston Parish Council Facebook Page, it was confirmed that all Members with the exception of Vincent Tickner are Administrators and can if they wish, make contributions to the Page.
Appointments to External Bodies: (a) East Sussex Association of Local Councils Limited: Cllrs Rob Mills & Tessa Haughton; (b) Lewes District Association of Local Councils: Cllr Vincent Tickner.
Accordingly, next week’s Annual Parish Meeting, scheduled to take place at 6:30 pm and the Annual Council Meeting due to take place at 7:30 pm next Tuesday, 12th May are cancelled. No meetings of the Parish Council are scheduled to be held in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, due to a lack of decent broadband provision we are precluded from holding remote meetings but where decisions are required, employing telephone/email should be sufficient. Where payments have to be made arrangements will be made to do so. It may well be that we are able to hold our meeting in July, possibly September. Westmeston Parish Council continues to function on the basis outlined until such time that more normal conditions pertain.
Clerk to Westmeston Parish Council