Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP, Dr Dan Poulter, has called on the Government to consider granting a permanent extension to legislation which would allow local councils to meet remotely using video technology.
In order to help tackle the spread of coronavirus, the Government extended powers in early 2020 to allow local authorities, including town, district and parish councils, to hold their meetings remotely, using video technology. This temporary change in legislation allowed local councils to continue to hold their statutory meetings, whilst also ensuring that their meetings were quorate, or included the requisite number of members to make decisions.
Dr Poulter has once again written to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP,Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, asking him to consider a temporary reintroduction of this legislation until such times as the threat of Omicron has subsided, but also asking that this may be considered as a permanent way forward.
In the short term, Dr Poulter would like to see local councils allowed the flexibility to conduct some of their meetings remotely, particularly as there are anxieties amongst the Parish Councils that have contacted him, that their meetings would potentially not be quorate due to illness or self-isolation, or that venues may not be Covid-secure.
As an example, East Suffolk Council is geographically one of the largest local authorities in England with large rural areas and a population of circa 250,000, a considerable proportion of which is over 65 years old. Therefore the ability to continue to hold remote meetings not only suits the District Council and its electorate better, but it actively supports the Government’s policy of devolving decision making locally to councils to choose what best suits their area.
The positive impact that remote meetings have had, and could continue to have on our carbon footprint must also not be overlooked. In order to better support Parish and Town Councils in their wish to hold remote or hybrid meetings, East Suffolk and other Councils are currently looking at ways in which they can help by way of provision of WiFi in village halls and other meeting places.
Speaking about the issue, Dr Poulter MP said “Whilst excellent progress continues to be made with the rollout of the vaccination programme, the coming months remain uncertain due to the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant.
“Whilst Covid-19 has brought many challenges, it has also given local authorities the opportunity to innovate and it is my view that one of the more successful innovations has been the way in which many of them have embraced online public meetings, effectively modernising and increasing participation in local democracy in a very short space of time. It would be regrettable if we were to take a step back from this positive progress due to out of date legislation that was made long before modern technology was invented.
“The pandemic has brought into focus the value of remote meetings which deliver greater efficiency and improved democratic engagement, along with a more time and carbon efficient way of working. Whilst I think it makes sense to allow a return to remote meetings for the immediate future, I also fully support permanent legislative change, and completely support Parish, Town and District Councils in their wish to decide for themselves the best format for their future meetings”