Local Government Minister Luke Hall last week wrote to all council leaders confirming that from May 7, authorities would have to return to council halls after being forced to go online in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent restrictions.
However, critics including the Local Government Association and the County Councils Network, have called for the decision to be reversed.
In his letter, Mr Hall said changing the legislation would have a “significant impact” on the government’s legislative programme, and noted the progress made on the roadmap for lifting COVID-19 restrictions.
He said: “While local authorities have been able to hold meetings in person at any time during the pandemic with appropriate measures in place, the successful rollout of the vaccine and the reduction in cases of COVID-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7, as reflected in the government’s plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions over the coming months.
“I recognise there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings. Ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the COVID-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely,” he added.
However, Coun James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said the decision was “disappointing”.
He noted that some councils could “easily involve up to 200 people in one room” while there would also be “significant challenges” in sourcing larger venues with social distancing measures.
“This also risks damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process.”
Rob Barlow, Joint Chief Executive for Boston Borough Council and East Lindsey District Council said: “It’s disappointing that the decision wasn’t made by government to extend the regulations on virtual council meetings from May 7. As councils, we had hoped to be granted greater flexibility going forward.”
Nigel West, head of democratic services at Lincolnshire County Council, said the government’s decision will “present us with a number of challenges, particularly in relation to our annual meeting on May 21.”
However, he added: “That said, our intention is to consider all of the options open to us to enable the decision-making of the council to continue, while maintaining a safe environment for all concerned.”
The LGA and a number of lawyers, as well as Herfordshire County Council, have now made an application to the courts to declare authorities already have the powers needed to hold online meetings.
A North East Lincolnshire Council spokesperson said: “We’re obviously aware of this, but understand there might be some further information due. Once that’s available, we’ll be able to clarify the impact on our democratic processes.”