LGA calls for flexibility to allow local authorities to offer virtual meeting options

We have reported previously here on the subject of local authorities’ ability to hold ‘virtual’ (i.e. remote) licensing hearings, which has included reference to the launch by the Government on 25 March 2021 of a twelve-week Call for Evidence on Local Authority remote meetings.

Almost a year on since that Call for Evidence concluded, the Local Government Association is urging 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.” It states as follows on its website:

LGA: Give Councils flexibility to offer virtual meeting options and open-up local democracy to all

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.

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.”

Notes To Editors

  1. Hybrid meeting – a mixture of participants attending in person in a specified location while others join virtually through an online meeting platform.
  2. LGA research report into the impacts of returning to in-person meetings
  3. LGA Response to Call for Evidence

NOTE: In an article for the March 2022 edition of the Institute of Licensing’s  ‘Journal of Licensing’, entitled ‘Is it really unlawful to conduct licensing sub-committee meetings remotely?’, barrister Charles Holland (Francis Taylor Building and Trinity Chambers) concludes as follows:

The Divisional Court in R (Hertfordshire) v SSHLG was at pains to stress that it was only construing Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972. That construction was highly dependent on the need for certainty at ‘meetings’ in the often politically contentious field of local democracy. Those considerations do not apply to licensing hearings, which are administrative proceedings without thorny issues of quorum, resolution and voting. There is no good reason why an updating construction can be given so that references to ‘place’, ‘attend’, ‘appearing’ and ‘in public’ can all be satisfied by their virtual equivalents.

A belt and braces solution can be supplied by a ‘hybrid’ hearing, where the ‘seat’ of the hearing is a physical place within the local authority premises, with some or indeed all of the participants attending remotely.

Remote hearings have revolutionised licensing. They enable the authority and the parties to draw on national expertise in terms of expert evidence and representation without the economic and environmental costs of individuals travelling to and from hearings. They enable parties and witness to attend in circumstances where physical attendance would be inconvenient, expensive or impossible. They have increased openness, transparency and public participation in the system.

Clearly in terms of an amendment to the Hearings Regulations (whether that applies in England or in England and Wales) may be no bad thing; but in the meantime, there are strong arguments that remote hearings, whether hybrid or entirely virtual, can continue.

COMMENT: The ongoing debate regarding remote/virtual licensing hearing reminds David Clifton of the many years he spent (as a solicitor in private practice) travelling the length and breadth of England and Wales to represent clients as an advocate on contested licence hearings before licensing committees of magistrates, prior to the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 in November 2005 when the licensing function was taken over by local authorities.

He has unearthed from the depths of the internet a Law Society Gazette article entitled ‘Licensed to thrill – the legal profession is all work and no play; but not so if you are in licensing law, a little-known area that is about to be shaken and stirred by legislative reform’, published 22 years ago (in May 2000), a copy of which you can download below.

In that article he and other specialist licensing solicitors explained the appeal of their chosen area of practice back then – a very different situation than that which exists now, particularly when compared with the remote/virtual licensing hearings of the type introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.