The Town Clerk Nigel Warner has written to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government on behalf of the Council, to express its profound disappointment that the Regulations enabling virtual town and parish council meetings come to an end on 6 May 2021. The government has decided not to extend the Regulations on the grounds that there is a very full parliamentary timetable together with a belief that primary legislation is needed.
Last week the High Court heard a legal challenge contending that primary legislation is not necessary and that virtual meetings are permitted under existing legislation. However if this challenge fails then a return to face to face meetings is expected from 7 May.
The Council is deeply concerned that with the vaccine rollout not complete, continued community transmission and the pandemic raging in other parts of the world, now is definitely not the time to end our ability to conduct our business through virtual meetings. Local authorities have worked hard to maintain their services and support the community during the pandemic. We have successfully conducted our council meetings online during this period and councils have invested in the skills and technology to enable us to do this. We believe that in line with the principle of localism, local councils should now be free to make the decision to continue with such meetings. To require physical attendance at meetings during an ongoing pandemic, during which we have as a nation lost over 140,000 people and when the government could have legislated to allow us to continue to meet virtually could be deemed to be at very least uncaring and at worst, reckless.
Councils have embraced the ability to meet virtually during this last year. The vast majority of meetings have been very successful and there have been many advantages to meeting virtually. Virtual meetings have enabled more public access, reduced the carbon footprint by reducing travel to meetings and assisted councillors who have paid employment can therefore join a meeting without having to take more time off work than is necessary.
The Town Clerk Nigel Warner stated: “As a council we look forward to being able to meet in person in the coming months. However we also believe that there are many reasons why we should also enable councillors to attend virtually. Abingdon Town Council would look to conduct hybrid meetings enabling both virtual and physical attendance. Many of us cannot wait to get back to attending meetings, when it is safe. However virtual attendance is of great assistance to many such as those with family and work responsibilities, enabling them to attend meetings which they would not otherwise be able to. We believe that enabling virtual attendance in future would have a positive impact in helping to make our councils more diverse and representative. Similarly for the public; the ability for a busy person with young children or an elderly person who is housebound, to attend a meeting from their own home must be a good thing.
“I have not seen so many councillors and colleagues in local government united in bewilderment that we now appear to be turning our backs on the ability to use modern technology to improve how we conduct our business whilst at the same time put the health and wellbeing of our councillors and staff at risk. Surely we should be embracing the opportunities which modern technology gives us to operate in a much more efficient way.
“The Council appreciates that this is a busy time this is for the government but if the High Court challenge is unsuccessful we would strongly urge the government to reconsider its position on this matter and bring forward the necessary legislation to permit virtual meetings.”