DevComms director Charles Bushe explains how virtual council meetings are about to become an online reality. 

Since the Coronavirus Act 2020 gained Royal Assent on March 25, we have been awaiting with interest, publication of the secondary legislation required to enable virtual council meetings to take place.

This legislation sets out the basic parameters within which virtual meetings can operate and paves the way for remote attendance to become the new normal. It was laid before Parliament on Thursday, April 2, 2020 and will be in force from Saturday, April 4, until Friday, May 7, 2021.

Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick has stated that local authorities are ‘the backbone of our democracy’ and that this new legislation will protect the ‘important economic functions they perform like the planning system’.

The legislation sets out that:

Council meetings are no longer ‘limited to a meeting of persons all of whom, or any of whom, are present in the same place’ and that these meetings can be held in ‘more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers’.

A councillor ‘in remote attendance’ must be able to hear, see and be seen, where practicable, by both other councillors in attendance and any members of the public attending the meeting (whether they will be addressing committee or not).

A meeting being ‘open to the public’ includes access to the meeting via (but not limited to) video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming. Being ‘present’ at a meeting includes access through these remote means.

So, what can we expect across the Thames Valley?

Along with the rest of the country, local authorities throughout the Thames Valley have been waiting to see what legislation would come from central Government.

Slough Borough Council cancelled the majority of meetings in late March whilst anticipating guidance from Government on whether they ‘will allow remote meetings to make formal decisions’ and Windsor & Maidenhead (RBWM) previously delegated planning powers to the managing director with the promise of a review if Government advice changed.

South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse and Oxford City all stated earlier in March that they too were awaiting Government advice.

Buckinghamshire Council formally entered existence on April 1, 2020 and has said that it is aiming to ‘maintain an appropriate level of [planning] service at this time in accordance with Government guidelines’.

We’ve already seen many councils across the region embrace technology over recent years to make meetings more accessible, with Reading Borough Council and RBWM for example webcasting many meetings. We expect that most (if not all) of these authorities will have already started to consider how such technology can be further evolved. No doubt we’ll hear more about this in the coming days and weeks.

It’s very much now ‘over to you’, as the Government guidance has been published and the framework has been in place since Saturday, April 4.

Local authorities are now expected to install robust platforms and adopt appropriate protocols which can reproduce the normal function of committee meetings but with a remote cast.

Although this change has been entirely foisted upon local government by unfortunate external factors, we can still expect the new mechanisms to be properly appraised in the fullness of time.

How has it impacted the quality and credibility of decision making? Has it protected democratic accountability? Has it improved or weakened local engagement in the planning process?

At this point however, we need to keep this virtual vision in perspective; if the legislation means planning can continue more or less unhindered, thereby enabling the regional property sector to remain buoyant, then the primary goal will have been achieved.

For the property sector across the Thames Valley, we can now but wait with bated breath to judge the success or otherwise of these measures.

Of course, only time will tell whether this virtual vision becomes an actual success but, for the moment at least, we can rest easy in the knowledge that things are certainly moving in the right direction.

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