With increasingly limiting restrictions on social interaction advised by Government, DevComms director Maria Allaway has been looking into how this is affecting council business across the Thames Valley, including conducting council meetings and determining planning applications.

Elections will be postponed until next year but for council business this is a dynamic situation which is changing regularly and currently some councils’ positions remain unclear and varied.

We understand it is not legal for councils to undertake virtual meetings at the moment and make decisions which require councillor participation, without having the appropriate Government legislation in place.

Last week, Robert Jenrick (Secretary of State for Local Government) addressed over 300 council leaders in a call to discuss the Government’s response to coronavirus.

He informed them that the Government is currently considering bringing forward legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a period. This legislation is expected to be announced today, Monday, March 23.

What we know so far

Many authorities are deferring meetings and operating a scheme of delegation. A snapshot of the current picture is as follows:

In South Oxfordshire, all council meetings are postponed for March and April, including planning committees.

In the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM), at a recent extraordinary council meeting, it was decided to cancel all public meetings until further notice.

RBWM has, however, gone a step further and agreed:

To ensure that planning and licensing decisions can continue to be made in these unprecedented times, powers have been delegated to the managing director who will work with the chief technical officers in these areas to make these decisions.

If needed, any public meetings of the council can be called to ensure business can continue to be conducted in a timely manner.

At the emerging Buckinghamshire unitary authority, council meetings are also postponed and delegated decisions on planning applications are being taken where possible.

However, there are wider implications given the impending formation of the new council on April 1.

As such, the new authority has released a statement to confirm that it will proceed as follows:

  • All current 202 shadow authority councillors will become members of the new authority;
  • The existing shadow executive members will form Buckinghamshire Council’s new cabinet until the elections in May 2021;
  • The council’s new constitution (its operating rules and procedures) will come into force on 1st April and new committees will be established. The Government is due to introduce emergency rules which will allow committees to hold virtual meetings for a temporary period.

Pending further information on the new legislation regarding virtual meetings, the situation remains varied and progress limited. However, we hope that once it is in place it will enable local authorities to set new processes in place and give clarity and assurance to the industry that business can continue.

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