Local Zoomocracy

My team has proved capable of losing 9-0 in any conditions but, because it is another angle on what I was going to write this morning, I was still interested to see this piece yesterday: Premier League’s home edge has gone in pandemic era: The impact of fan-less games in England and Europe (ESPN, 12 February 2021).

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see some statistics on the impacts of virtual local authority meetings and PINS hearings and inquiries on decision making outcomes?

Would that Handforth Parish Council meeting have been any less chaotic if Aled’s iPad, guitars man or Handforth PC Clerk had all been sitting around the same table? A subsequent letter from Land Promoters and Developers Federation policy director John Acres in Planning magazine The Handforth debacle shows that local democracy is too often placed in the wrong hands (registration only) seeks to draw wider conclusions.

I mentioned in my 23 January 2021 blog post Temporary Covid Measures – Planning, Traffic, Local Government: There May Be Trouble Ahead that after 6 May 2021 local authorities may not be able to hold virtual meetings given the expiry on that date of temporary freedom provided by Regulation 5 of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 , pursuant to section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020.

In response to that blog post, Hugh Richards (No 5 Chambers) rightly, and probably rhetorically, asked whether local authorities need statutory authority to hold virtual meetings in any event. Well, I took it as a rhetorical question and didn’t reply at the time after I disappeared down a legal rabbit hole trying to arrive at an answer.

I’m pleased to see that the Lawyers in Local Government and Association of Democratic Services Officers are taking urgent steps to try to avoid what would be an unfortunate hiatus – they have obtained an opinion from James Strachan QC, a summary of which is reported as follows:

“(1) There are forceful arguments that can be made that the pre-existing legislation governing local authority meetings under Schedule 12 of the Local Government 1972 Act, and meetings of an executive or a committee of an executive under the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012, enable local authorities to hold meetings remotely.

(2) For the present situation to continue after 7 May 2021 with the use of remote meetings, the optimum position would be for further legislation to be passed to make the position clear.

(3) In the absence of such legislation, one resolution would be to obtain a declaration from the courts to obtain clarity as to the legal position under the pre-existing legislation.

(4) The Secretary of State does have (a) power under section 16 of the 1999 Act to make an Order to modify or disapply those restrictions for best value authorities and (b) power under the 2000 Act to make regulations governing executive decision-making bodies to hold remote meetings.”

(LLG & ADSO Obtain Legal Opinion on Virtual Meeting Provisions, 5 February 2021).

The LLG and ADSO intend to seek a declaration from the High Court. Without such a declaration (or legislation) there is inevitably going to be a question-mark over the lawfulness of any local authority resolution passed on or after 7 May by way of a virtual meeting. This is a risk that most applicants would wish to avoid in relation to any contentious planning application.

6 May is of course an important date because local government elections will definitely be proceeding (as far as “definitely” is a word that any of us can still use). The Local Government Association has published much information and guidance relating to the May 2021 local government elections.

Ahead of those elections will be the usual period (previously known as the “purdah period”, now simply and dully, “pre-election period”) when there is heightened sensitivity over decision making. The period will start at the latest on 27 March (22 March for the London elections). Again, the Local Government Association has published detailed guidance.

The period is shorter when it comes to actions and decisions taken being by central Government. As set out in the Commons Library research briefing Pre-election period of sensitivity (23 November 2020), the relevant civil service guidance is as follows:

“The period of sensitivity for UK Government civil servants preceding scheduled local and mayoral elections each May is not fixed to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections.”

Applying that ESPN Premier League analysis, it will be fascinating to see the influence of the current restrictions upon election outcomes. Fortunately I don’t have a team. Simon’s iPad will not be making its first appearance at my local parish council meeting this Spring.

Simon Ricketts, 13 February 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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