Borough councillors face up to each other

Councils are returning to face-to-face meetings – Chief Correspondent Rob Thomas explains why…

BOTH Gosport and Fareham Borough Councils will return to face-to-face meetings next week after more than a year of ‘remote’ discussion and decision-making.

The Government’s emergency legislation at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown – the Coronavirus Act and Flexibility Regulations of March and April 2020 – allowed councils to hold remote meetings using video conferencing and also streamed on the internet for the public to see and hear the discussions and decision-making.

However, the regulations came to an end on May 7 this year and the National Association of Local Council’s request to the Government, and its High Court case, were unsuccessful in getting the regulations extended. To continue with remote meetings would have required ‘primary legislation’ but the Government refused to place the legislation before Parliament.

Writing to council leaders in England, the Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government – Luke Hall MP – stated that enacting a new law would have a, “significant impact… on the government’s legislative program…”.

He added: “We are also mindful of the excellent progress that has been made on our vaccination program and the announcement of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid-19 restrictions.”

Therefore, local authorities must return to the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 which include – as summarised in the High Court judgment – that councils hold “meetings” at a “place” at which the participants are “present” or which they “attend”.

The chair of NALC, Sue Baxter, expressed her disappointment with the refusal of the High Court to require the Government to extend remote meetings. She pointed to the, “health risk given the current pandemic… and significant additional costs incurred by councils in securing suitable venues which allow social distancing and other safety measures”.

That is the case in Gosport where next Wednesday’s – May 19 – Council meeting will be held at the Thorngate Halls, Bury Road. It will start at 6pm and members of the public will be able to attend.

In Fareham, the council meeting at 2.30pm on Thursday – May 20 – will be, as was usual in pre-pandemic times, in the Council Chamber at the Civic Offices. Both meetings will involve more than 30 people but they are being held after Monday’s relaxation of coronavirus restrictions.

From  May 17, the maximum number of people attending a funeral can exceed 30, and indoor entertainment and attractions such as cinemas, theatres, concert halls, bowling alleys, casinos, amusement arcades, museums and children’s indoor play areas will be permitted to open with Covid-secure measures in place.

In what some, both locally and nationally, see as a decrease in democratic accountability, neither council meeting will be streamed on the internet. They could be but both councils accept the costs involved in obtaining and installing the necessary equipment are prohibitive in the current economic climate.