Council meeting dilemma
Across Somerset, along with many other parts of the country, council meetings have been on Zoom for a year. Or some such similar system. However the legislation that allowed meetings to take place online rather than in person only ran for a year. In fact it expires on 7 May.
This would mean all meetings after that date must be “in person” meetings.
As the COVID crisis has not yet gone away this is a problem. Indeed it is a problem under the Government’s own rules which do not relax until 17 May. The real problem is the government “forgot” and did not put legislation in place to extend the rules. And now there is no room in the legislative pipeline to do it.
So to avoid having to hold meetings face to face ADSO (Association of Democratic Services Officers) went to court. They asked judges to declare what a meeting is. This is not (believe it or not) actually defined in the Local Government Act. All that was needed, was for the judges to define a meeting as online as well as in person.
And we have been waiting for that verdict from the courts. And this evening it came. It was not what councils were hoping for. The judges have come out and said that meetings can only be held online if legislation permits. And that means the government will need primary legislation put through Parliament.
So from 7 May councils have a difficult, almost impossible decision to make. Either they hold the meetings they are obliged to hold and risk COVID infections. Or they can refuse to hold meetings at all, or hold illegal online ones. It is not an enviable choice.
And if they stop holding meetings, the usual business of councils will grind to a halt. That means dealing with planning applications, decisions on education, adult social care, waste disposal and the like.