Jenrick urged to relax local government committee rules to allow council decision-making to continue

Local government lawyers have urged the secretary of state to relax laws stipulating that elected members must be physically present for committee meetings to proceed, as it emerged that more councils cancelled their planning committee meetings this week as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Council committee meetings: action urged by lawyers
Council committee meetings: action urged by lawyers

The letter was sent as an increasing number of local authorities have cancelled planning committees because of concerns that participants and members of the public may be at risk of infection. 

It comes as the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea and Redbridge and Westminster City Council all cancelled their planning committees this week. 

Trade bodies Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) have sent a joint letter to Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, urging legal changes to allow remote meetings if physical gatherings have to be cancelled.

Under the Local Government Act 1972, elected members are required to be physically present in order for council meetings to take place in England. 

More recent legislation in Wales states that councillors can remotely attend meetings provided a quorum of 30 per cent of members are physically present. 

In the letter, the LLG and ADSO advise that local authorities should hold "essential" meetings only and with the minimum number of people attending in order to satisfy a quorum. 

Where possible, the lawyers’ bodies say councils should be using "urgency powers" within their constitutions to take decisions outside of public meetings. 

They state that almost all local authorities have delegated powers provisions for committee decision making.

And for decisions that would otherwise have been made by a committee, the letter says the officer can be advised by the views of committee members, accessed remotely at an agreed time via tools such as Microsoft Teams or Skype. 

While the officer’s discretion cannot be entirely fettered, the lawyers say, they can give "almost overwhelming weight" to a vote of committee members responding remotely to a report and officers’ advice, or even after seeing videoed submissions in lieu of public access.

The government announced earlier this week that it will consider bringing forward legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period. 

Planning has reported that a number of authorities have postponed or cancelled both current and forthcoming planning committee meetings. 

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