Virtual and hybrid council meetings should be an integral part of the future of local democracy, councils say today – a year on since the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities call for evidence for remote meetings closed.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales is urging the Government to finally address the future of remote and hybrid council meetings.
On its website, the LGA wrote, with national lockdown and COVID-19 safety measures preventing groups of people from meeting, the Government introduced remote meetings in April 2020 under emergency legislation to enable councils to make critical decisions democratically and without delay during the pandemic.
The introduction of legislation proved successful, with councils highlighting an increase in participation from both elected members and residents due to better equity of access and an increase in the transparency of decision-making processes.
However, the Government has rejected calls from councils to make the rules permanent and councils were forced to return to in-person meetings, resulting in increased costs on already stretched council budgets and reduced participation from councillors and the public.
While the Government acknowledged concerns with the launch of the call for evidence, it has failed to release the results or set out a plan to take the issue forwards, leaving councils uncertain and unable to plan effectively for the future of their organisations, despite much of its workforce successfully having adapted to a virtual and hybrid working patterns.
As a result, councils want the flexibility to offer hybrid and virtual meetings so they can continue to work in the most accessible and resilient way possible, especially in times of emergency such as when there is adverse weather or flooding.
Flexibility is also vital in attracting a wider range of people to stand as candidates in local elections, with recent research highlighting that 72 per cent of councillors surveyed in a new poll stating that moving to a hybrid model could attract more younger people, ethnic minorities, and women to stand in local elections.
Virtual and hybrid meetings also better support the attendance of councillors with disabilities or chronic illnesses and enable councillors with caring responsibilities to balance their role and personal lives.
LGA Chairman, Cllr James Jamieson, said:
“It has been a year since the Government’s call for evidence around remote and hybrid meetings, but it has yet to publish the results or take any steps to address this issue, which is a priority for councils up and down the country.
“The pandemic proved that using virtual meeting options can help councils work more effectively and efficiently and can in fact increase engagement from both councillors and residents, which is a vital part of local democracy.
“We urge the Government to act quickly and take the next steps to introduce legislation that would empower local authorities to make the most suitable choice for their organisation and communities and bring them in-step with the residents' expectations of organisations that provide local services in the 21st century.”