THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of councils (95 per cent) surveyed by the Local Government Association (LGA) want the powers to be able to reintroduce virtual and hybrid technology for statutory council meetings.
The LGA, which represents councils in England and Wales, is warning that the recruitment and retention of councillors, particularly those balancing career or care commitments, will be hampered if powers are not given to councils to be able to hold statutory meetings in a hybrid manner.
One in 10 councils surveyed had a councillor who had stepped down in their authority since May 2021 due to the requirement for them to attend council meetings in-person, with expectations around the use of technology changing considerably due to the experience of the pandemic.
The findings from the LGA survey completed by around a third of local authorities in England also found that:
- 84 per cent of councils found their councillors with work commitments would benefit from hybrid meetings, whilst 64 per cent of councils thought that their councillors with childcare commitments would also take advantage of the changes.
- Almost nine in 10 councils surveyed said they had councillors who would make use of virtual attendance options to attend council meetings as a reasonable adjustment.
- No council surveyed wanted to hold fully virtual meetings but the vast majority wanted hybrid options for those councillors who needed it.
Under 50 year old laws, councils are required to hold certain statutory meetings, such as for planning and full council, in person. However, during the pandemic, councils were temporarily allowed to hold these meetings virtually until May 2021.
Councils are calling on the Government to finally remove this outdated barrier to participation and legislate to allow councils the flexibility to decide for them how they should use virtual meeting technologies. Without these powers, they are warning that communities will needlessly lose good councillors and put off prospective candidates from standing for election because in-person meetings are creating real barriers to a range of people engaging with local politics.
Previous LGA research found that when hybrid meetings were carried during the pandemic it had increased public attendance and created greater engagement in the local democratic process.
Cllr Joe Harris, Vice-Chair of the LGA said: “Good decision-making needs people who reflect the range of experiences, background and insight that exist in their communities. However, councillors are restricted by law to attend council meetings in person, which can deter a range of people including full time professionals, parents of young children, carers, workers and disabled people from stepping forward to represent their communities. The Government should provide councils, who know their communities best, with the flexibility they need to decide how to use hybrid technologies in their meetings.
“People’s expectations have changed due to improvements in virtual meeting technologies bought on by the pandemic. Many people now use hybrid meeting technologies every day in their work life and so there should be no reason why this cannot be used by councils across the country. This will help to drive up engagement in local democracy and ensure that we have a diverse range of councillors throughout our communities.
Cllr Keith Stevens, chair of the National Association of Local Councils said: “We need to make it easier, not harder, for people to participate in civic life and get involved in their local communities. Giving local (parish and town) councils the flexibility to hold online and hybrid council meetings is a great place to start and should be decided locally and not in Downing Street.”
John Austin, chair of the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Helen McGrath, Head of Public Affairs at Lawyers in Local Government said: “The results of the LGA survey very much supports the ADSO [Association of Democratic Services Officers] and LLG [Lawyers in Local Government] campaign to allow councils to hold remote meetings if they wish. The evidence and the merits of our case are compelling. We therefore call on the Secretary of State to make the necessary legislative change and allow councils to operate in the modern world as the Government and Parliament both do successfully.”
Mel Stevens, Chief Executive of the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny said: “The results of this survey highlight how important the flexibility provided by virtual meetings really is – both for councils themselves, and for the public. Virtual meetings will help everyone with an interest in local democracy to engage more effectively with it, by removing barriers that may make physical presence difficult. We support the work of ADSO, LLG, the LGA and other sector partners in coming together to continue to make the case for this measure.”
Cllr Sam Murray, Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk County Council said: “As a disabled, single mother of two young children, being a councillor is a challenge – being a borough councillor and county councillor is even more so. I was elected in May 2021 and during the campaign for my seats everything was online. I was ecstatic to win my seat, but it was an unpleasant surprise to immediately be told that council meetings had to take place in person without exception.
“I work hard to fulfil my role as a councillor, I take it seriously and I’m dedicated to my local community. But I am disabled with mobility issues that vary in severity. There is a shortage of accessible taxis in my area and so I sometimes rely on lifts from friends to get me to council meetings. My mobility scooter can be difficult to manoeuvre, and draws unnecessary attention to what I cannot manage, and that’s being mobile, rather than what I can manage such as participating in debate. I truly believe it’s important to be there as often as I can, but on bad days it’s exhausting and embarrassing that I must rely on other people for my basic needs. It feels so completely unnecessary when I could just log on from home where I can manage my own needs and contribute fully to the meeting.”
Cllr Louise Mead, member of Epping Forest District Council said: “Personally, virtual council meetings changed my life as a councillor and made many more meetings much more accessible to me. I have been a councillor since 2014 when my daughter was just three, I am a single parent. There is no childcare provision in the district council during meetings. There is the possibility of claiming childcare expenses, but this is not for family, and I did not want to leave my daughter with outside carers.
“Therefore the care, whilst I was at meetings often late into the evenings, has always fallen to my elderly mother for the last seven years who I do not want to burden for too many late evenings. This has meant I have been at a disadvantage to other councillors in my council. I believe I am the only councillor who is a single parent with a young child in my council, and it has often meant I have had to miss extra meetings that I would have wanted to be part of.
“Sadly, this situation is why there are not many mothers of young children who become councillors. The choice to be allowed virtual meetings would change this, and also give the opportunity for more disabled people and carers to consider becoming councillors in the future.
Cllr Kelly Grehan, Dartford Borough Council and Kent County Council said: “During the pandemic, councils turned to virtual council meetings as a way to keep local decision-making functioning democratically and safely. For me as a parish, borough and county councillor with two children and a full-time job, virtual council meetings during the pandemic allowed me to attend all my meetings consistently, without stress, excessive travel times and costs or worrying about childcare. Returning to in-person meetings only has reminded me how inflexible council meetings are. This inflexibility is a serious barrier to getting a wider range of people involved in local politics.
“When I consider in-person meetings and all the other barriers, I’m not surprised it’s so difficult to get younger people to stand for elected office. Parents of young children would almost certainly find it impossible to attend in-person meetings as often as I am required to. It takes me at least an hour to travel to county council meetings and on occasion has taken me over two hours to get home. I can’t help thinking this is wasted time, which I could productively be using for casework.
Cllr Dr Jane Worlock, Ward Councillor at Hart District Council, said: “Having progressive mobility issues myself means that attending in-person isn’t always easy due to my personal circumstances. Attending virtually during the pandemic allowed me to fully realise what truly accessible local government could look like. Flexibility through hybrid meetings could remove the inherent barriers of in-person only meetings and encourage greater public engagement from parents, carers, full-time workers and disabled people who might find it more challenging to attend in-person.
“It would be difficult for me to overstate how important it is that councils are allowed the flexibility to offer virtual and hybrid meeting options. I would say it’s imperative. Currently, we have exclusivity, with people interested and engaged with local government feeling they can’t access council meetings where important decisions are made about their local community.”
* Source: Local Government Association