Concern as Lancashire councillors called back to face-to-face meetings from May

A government decision that could force councillors to return to face-to-face meetings from next month has been met with criticism and concern across much of Lancashire.

Ministers have said that powers introduced last year enabling local authorities to stage remote meetings as a result of the pandemic will end, as planned, on 6th May.

In a letter to town and county halls late last month, local government minister Luke Hall said that the success of the vaccine rollout and a fall in the number of Covid cases should ensure a “significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person”.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has since said it will support a legal challenge brought by Hertfordshire County Council, questioning whether the normal rules – which ban voting by any members not present in the room – should be reinterpreted because they were conceived nearly 50 years ago, long before the technology making remote meetings possible existed.

Council buildings like County Hall have not held full-capacity meetings since March 2020

However, if that High Court bid is unsuccessful, those long-held rules will apply once again after the local elections – 10 days before the earliest date from which some other indoor meetings could be permitted under the government’s roadmap for lifting lockdown. Councils will still have to follow Covid-secure guidance once traditional meetings restart.

The temporary pandemic measures have seen members using video conferencing technology to dial-in to debates and vote from their own homes.

Some local authorities in Lancashire have held hybrid meetings, with a small number of members attending in person for socially-distanced sittings within council buildings, while others have joined remotely.

The changes had also resulted in several councils in the county webcasting meetings live and uploading them for later viewing for the first time.

The Conservative deputy leader of Lancashire County Council, Keith Iddon – who has spent much of the last year shielding because of a health condition – said he will feel sufficiently protected to return to County Hall after his second jab.

However, he said that councils should continue to have been afforded the same choices as Westminster politicians.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – in Parliament, they are allowed to [attend] virtually and they can all vote.

“I do think there is a need for some of us to be present for council meetings and I think we need to be working towards that.

“But we have also got to look at our carbon footprint and also how things have changed.

“There will be people who are keen to come back, because they like to mix with others, but there are those who would like to mix and match – and that’s possible now with the technology that we’ve got,” County Cllr Iddon said.

The government is asking councils for evidence about their experience of remote meetings as part of a review into the possibility of permitting them in the long term. Luke Hall’s letter to local authorities indicated that a lack of parliamentary time to enact new legislation was among the reasons for not continuing them in their current form.

However, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali says that the option for remote gatherings is still necessary at the current stage in the pandemic.

“It’s important that meetings take place in a safe zone. Naturally, councillors are apprehensive and a hybrid system needs to be implemented that allows people who are shielding to be part of meetings,” he said.

Liberal Democrat group leader David Whipp said that online meetings had opened up the democratic process to the public .

“It’s a great shame that the government isn’t allowing them to continue. As well as improving access to decision making for residents, virtual meetings mean it’s possible to make significant savings in time and money – and they are good for the environment by cutting travelling, too,” said County Cllr Whipp.

Lancashire County Council chief executive Angie Ridgwell said that the authority had been planning for the eventuality of having to return to the traditional model for meetings.

“Many of our meetings can be accommodated in our council chamber with appropriate social distancing and other safety measures in place.

“The virtual meetings allowed us to continue to hold important council meetings safely. They also had the added benefit of reducing the need to travel, as well as helping some people with balancing family and work responsibilities during the pandemic,” Ms. Ridgwell said.

However, her counterpart at Blackpool Council warned that the town hall in the resort was not designed to meet the demands of the ongoing Covid precautions.

“There are obvious logistical issues with face-to-face meetings resuming while social distancing rules remain in place,” said the authority’s chief executive Neil Jack.

“For example, no rooms in the Town Hall could safely accommodate a meeting of the full council. In addition to the councillors and officers that need to attend meetings, we also have to make provision for any members of the public and media who may wish to observe.

“We are aware the Local Government Association is lobbying the decision and will await the outcome. In the meantime we will look at different options that can allow meetings to take place safely.”

The government has said that councils should continue to offer options for the public to continue to observe meetings without having to attend in person, at least until 21st June – the date all restrictions are due to be lifted under the roadmap.

However, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said it was “ridiculous” for councillors themselves to have to return to in-person meetings at this point.

“I’m not particularly bothered about myself – it’s more about other members who are older and potentially at risk a bit more.

“There will also need to be more staff to run these meetings and it’s putting them at risk as well.

“I get the rationale that when we get to the middle of June and all the restrictions are [due to be] lifted, we can do it then – but why are the government being so strong-minded about it after everything we have been through and all the lessons we should have learned?” Cllr Brown asked.

The city council’s chief executive, Adrian Phillips, said that the authority had been “proactively preparing” to start staging face-to-face meetings once again.

He added: “We are currently working to ensure our meetings will be Covid-safe for all involved. Details on public meetings will be made available on our website in due course.”

South Ribble leader Paul Foster criticised the government for not seeking feedback from councils before making the move to revert to the previous rules.

”The fact is that there are still many of my colleagues who will not feel comfortable attending meetings, but with the legislation changing back, we can no longer hold them [in hybrid form].

“It’s a huge opportunity lost, but obviously we will dust down and carry on – the democratic process is essential for us all,” Cllr Foster said.

In neighbouring Chorley – where the council chamber is one of the smallest in Lancashire – council leader Alistair Bradley said he was “bemused and disappointed” by the government stance.

“They have basically said they are too busy to legislate – so MPs will have the power to continue working remotely, but they won’t extend that to local authorities, many of whom have older or otherwise vulnerable members.

“The decision-making process during the pandemic has been good. Everybody talks about society returning to a new normal after this is over and I think councils should be given the flexibility to decide which meetings to hold face-to-face and which can continue to work effectively when done remotely,” Cllr Bradley said.

The chief executive of South Ribble and Chorley councils, Gary Hall, says the change will “present real challenges for both authorities and is particularly difficult as, in certain respects, it conflicts with the government’s own roadmap out of lockdown”.

Mr Hall added: “We have been working hard to put in place arrangements which will enable committees to meet in person in a manner that is also Covid-secure.

“We are currently giving careful consideration to the timing of a number of our scheduled meetings and some may now have to be delayed until restrictions are able to be eased further.

“We remain committed to allowing the public and press to engage with our meetings and will be putting arrangements in place to support that.”

Burnley Council leader Mark Townsend said it was "too early for large public meetings in confined spaces".

He added: "Burnley Council is operating fine remotely and we need to be focused on reopening our economy safely rather than being diverted onto how we hold safe meetings.

"We should have the flexibility to decide what is best based on local considerations to keep people safe."

However, in Wyre, council leader David Henderson acknowledged the short-term challenges, but said that there were ways around them – and stressed the importance of a return to normal over the longer term.

“If you have a committee of up to 14 people, then here at Wyre we can hold those in the Civic Centre with social distancing [in place] – no problem whatsoever.

“As for full council meetings, there will be reluctance from some elected members or officers who may be in the at-risk category to go back. Councils don’t do usually much business [in the form of meetings] in July and August because of school holidays, so my opinion is that you could quite comfortably look at having full council meetings after July – as long as the restrictions are lifted, said Cllr Henderson, who added that he would be discussing the matter with cabinet members and officers.

“I have always thought that when the time is right, meetings within the council chamber should be brought back slowly but surely.

“Some people will put up valid arguments to continue with remote meetings – such as not having to drive all over the place.

“But members are elected to go and sit across a table from somebody and either debate something or work something out,” said Cllr Henderson.

A spokesperson for Wyre Council added: “We’re taking every precaution to ensure that the council chamber will be safe for a return to face to face meetings. Social distancing will be in place as well as regular cleaning and sanitisation stalls.”

Meanwhile, Pendle Council’s corporate director Philip Mousdale said the authority was “considering the implications of this disappointing response from the government”.

A spokesperson for Blackburn Council said that preparations were being made for a return to in-person meetings in a Covid-safe way from 7th May”, but noted the ongoing legal challenge.

Ribble Valley Borough Council chief executive Marshal Scott said: “We are considering the implications of the Government’s response and the challenges it will pose.”

A spokesperson for Fylde Council said that the authority would be “looking at all the regulations and following best practice”

Councils that are holding local elections this year – Lancashire County Council and the districts of Burnley, Chorley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Preston, Rossendale and West Lancashire – are obliged to stage their annual general meetings within 21 days of the poll on 6th May. However, others have the option of bringing those meetings forward so that they take place under the current regulations for remote voting.

The politicians, council officers and spokespeople quoted in this article were all speaking before the government announced its support late last week for the Hertfordshire County Council case, which is being brought jointly with the organisations Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers.

All of Lancashire’s 15 councils were approached for comment.

MHCLG referred to a statement issued by minister of state Luke Hall last month, in which he said: “Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time.

“As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from 7th May are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way.

“I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option.”