Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Local authorities in England and Wales given emergency coronavirus powers

Out-Law News | 09 Apr 2020 | 12:23 pm | 2 min. read

Local authorities in England and Wales have been given emergency powers to make decisions in virtual meetings. Previously members of councils, fire and rescue authorities, and police and crime panels had to be present in one place to make decisions.

The powers are set out in a raft of new regulations designed to ensure local authority work can continue through the coronavirus outbreak. They will be in place until 7 May 2021.

Other changes include allowing local authority elections to be postponed until next year.

Notice of meetings

Local authorities no longer need to give further notice to hold, rearrange or cancel meetings, but they should still give as much notice as reasonably possible – the regulations relax the current requirements but they don't take away basic principles of fairness

Virtual meetings

Members of an authority do not need to be present in the same place for a meeting to take place. Instead meetings can be held over the phone or by video conference. A councillor will be considered to be present when they are able to hear and be heard, and where practicable be see and be seen, by the other councillors and any members of the public who are attending remotely.

Public and press access to meetings

Where meetings must be open to the public, this can be done virtually too.

Access to documents

Any documents that should be open to public inspection can now simple be published on the local authority's website.

Local authorities do not need to change their constitutions before they can hold virtual meetings. The Regulations apply regardless of any prohibition or restrictions about holding meetings that are currently in place. The regulations allow local authorities to make new rules, and virtual meetings could be used to make a range of changes - and not just for meetings -  such as:

  • new procedures which help members of the community who are at risk of digital exclusion. There is no easy way of fixing digital exclusion in the current climate, but some analysis of the scale of this risk could be built into the committee's considerations and risks could be mitigated by using postal communications and facilitating dial in facilities;
  • agreeing modifications to the Statement of Community Involvement to avoid conflicts between new practices and old policies

  • new procedures for virtual site visits (including the use of drones), and for public speaking at virtual meetings;.
  • adapted templates for committee meetings that record matters such as the video conferencing technology, and the arrangements for voting, minutes, public and press access and availability of documents;
  • agreeing what constitutes a valid e-notice and e-consultation and defining a range of approved data formats for submission of documents;
  • facilitating the electronic service, signing and sealing of documents, (subject to Land Registry compliances).

The Election Regulations allow local by-elections and referendums to be postponed until 6 May 2021.

The specified local by-elections include casual vacancies for councillors, the constituency members of the Greater London Authority, the mayor of London, elected mayors, combined authority mayors, and Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales. Such casual vacancies occur when an individual is no longer able to fill their elected seat as a result of death, resignation, incapacity or disqualification. The specified referendums are local advisory polls and those relating to local authority governance changes and neighbourhood planning.