Local authority virtual meetings – headline news or long term solution?
Handforth Parish Council’s 10th December meeting has made headline news, and the clerk Jackie Weaver has become an instant celebrity. Previously, if asked how Parish Council meetings were conducted, many may have referenced the Vicar of Dibley, but they now have an altogether less palatable, though arguably more realistic, insight into certain aspects of local democracy.
Whereas from time immemorial such meetings have taken place in public and in person, the far-from-snappily titled “Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020”, in force until 7th May 2021 (unless extended), have provided the machinery to enable local authority meetings to move on-line during the Covid crisis. Little could the draughtsmen have envisaged this particular ramification. Although they would no doubt be content that it does not appear to have been the subject of any contentious litigation since it first came into force almost a year ago. (For guidance on these Regulations, Cornerstone Barristers provided zoom webinars and a FAQ).
I am not aware of the background to this particular Parish Council meeting, and so do not comment on the actions of those involved. Also, it should be stressed it is very much the exception. Local authorities up and down the country have switched to virtual meetings with great success, even if many minor, or not so minor, frustrations generated by technology and etiquette have arisen.
However, the news story first provides a timely reminder that for local democracy to function as it should it has to operate within a defined set of rules and be effectively administered – and this is more difficult to do remotely. It is much more challenging to iron out issues with a short adjournment if “on air” as there is no scope for private discussion, consultation or mediation. Further, the restraining effect that close presence of other Councillors may engender is lost at a remote meeting, and behaviour may become more uninhibited as a result.
The most important lesson is that such meetings can now become very public meetings indeed. Whilst before meetings of some larger authorities were recorded, almost all public meetings are now open to public scrutiny, whether at the time or even some time after the event. The management of the meetings, rules of engagement and behaviour are all the more important.
This is not to suggest that virtual meetings are “a bad thing” for local democracy. The second question that arises is more fundamental. If, and hopefully when, we return to normal should virtual meetings remain an option? There is some evidence that greater public attendance has occurred, however no doubt only by those with time and the internet connection to enable them to take part. Meetings are also easier to organise and attend. It appears that ADSO (the Association of Democratic Service Officers) and LLG (Lawyers in Local Government) are keen to extend the ability to have virtual meetings beyond May 2021, even considering seeking a declaration in court to that end. However, to do so may require primary legislation. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen, but if virtual meetings remain an option careful thought will have to be given as to the balance as undoubtedly something would be lost if in person public meetings were simply to become history.
Whatever the outcome, the rules and regulations around local authority meetings will continue to be important and ignored at peril whether the meeting is actual or virtual as the recent case decision of Mr Justice Dove in Holborn Studios Limited v London Borough of Hackney  EWHC 1509 demonstrates. He found a failure to list background papers and provide them for inspection as required by section 100D of the Local Government Act 1972 led to a planning decision being quashed.
This article was written by James Findlay QC.