Government tells councils they must meet in public after May local elections – that is neither practical nor safe

Local councils have been meeting online during the pandemic. After a few teething problems, the practice of meeting online has worked well. But yesterday the government declared councils must meet in public after 7 May. Many councillors think this is too early. A good many councils, including Ludlow Town Council and Shropshire Council, do not have suitable buildings to accommodate all their councillors, let alone members of the public, while social distancing remains in place.

Vaccination is under way but having kept myself safe for a year, I think this is too risky. Up to 74 councillors and at least 25 officers and public attend Shropshire’s unitary council in a chamber set out like a university lecture hall. My local town council meets in a cheek by jowl Guildhall that is socially cramped. The parish council I chair had 30 people at one online meeting recently. There is nowhere in the parish big enough for a meeting that size even in normal times.

This is retrograde move that will reduce the effectiveness of local democracy. Not for once, ministers are out of touch with reality.

The compulsory return to face to face for councils is only happening because local government has long been an afterthought in the government’s deliberations (and, for that matter, allocation of funding). Parliament has run out of time to debate the required legislation that would extend powers for online meetings. Faced with a mess of their own making, Ministers are bragging up face to face meetings up as a return to normality in a letter  and guidance to councils. But the upbeat talk cannot disguise that it will be difficult for many cash strapped councils to hold democratic meetings until social distancing rules are lifted.

The government’s move is set to heap pressure on councils at a point where they are already stretched dealing with the May elections and finding ways to help return local economies to normal.

This is parliament at its weakest – unable to deal with the essential business of the day. That is the fault of ministers and parliamentary business managers. I hope MPs and councils will protest loudly that this is a retrograde step that will damage local democracy.

The pandemic created an opportunity to get councils to a position that they should have been in a while ago. Reaching out to a wider community using technology. We must not lose that. The government is encouraging councils to allow public access online while councillors are meeting in public. There is a legal requirement that councils must meet in public except when they can’t. But being face to face and online at the same time does add extra complexity and costs for councils, especially smaller councils.

Ministers have launched a consultation on whether councils could meet online as many do in Scotland. That is welcome but belated. Meanwhile, ministers are facing action in the courts being brought by councils of all sizes from across the country who are opposing the enforced return to face to face meetings before it’s safe or practical to do so.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • This is incredible and I’ve no idea why central government should be able to tell councils what to do like this.

    Now it’s been proven that remote meetings can work, surely enabling them to continue could be treated as a reasonable adjustment for anyone who needs it. Not knowing who will be in office following the elections, councils cannot be sure that none of their councillors would have a relevant disability. Not that you should need to be officially declared as disabled to be able to access this option. Not to mention the people with young children and so on.

    At the very least, meetings should have a blended option, so those who do attend can spread out.

  • It goes without saying that there can be no face to face council meetings until it is safe to do so, but given that 30m of us have been vaccinated and the entire adult population will have been “jabbed” by the end of July, we should be looking for a return to normal by late summer (May does seem a little early).
    I take the view that zoom meetings are a poor substitute. Democracy, like justice, must not only be done but be seen to be done and that, to me, means elected members meeting in person. Like all of us, I have “attended” various on-line meetings in recent months but I always feel they lack the dynamics, the cut and thrust, of the real thing. If nothing else, the “zoom” meeting will kill what remains of the art of oration and the ability to read the room.
    My fear is that some councils rather like the anonymity of the computer screen and will be reluctant to meet in public again. Andy’s anecdotal evidence is that on-line meetings attract more of the public. I suspect that is not the universal experience, and as for 30 people at a parish council meeting, I can only assume that a motorway is being built through the village.

  • Andy Boddington 26th Mar '21 - 2:45pm

    Not a motorway, loss of the post office! We secured a mobile post office as a result but it is not the same

  • neil James sandison 26th Mar '21 - 3:03pm

    What this out of touch government has failed to realise ,and if they had been a little less dictatorial and talked a lot more to local councillors and officials they would find out that attendance at meetings conducted on teams or zoom has in fact increased the number of residents participating in meetings indeed more log on for a council or planning meeting than ever squeezed into our acoustically poor council chamber . Government should keep its nose out of our affairs and allow councils to decide how best it wishes to engage with the public my guess it would be a mixture of both where social distancing can be achieved .

  • nigel hunter 26th Mar '21 - 4:45pm

    Remember they are a govnt that does not consult others of their actions ALSO they are slowly strangling local govnt cos they do not believe in it.

  • Andrew Tampion 26th Mar '21 - 8:45pm

    Is there any reason why meetings held face to face rather than virtually can’t be broadcast on various forums so that people who want to attend have the choice of going to the meeting or watching it virtually.
    My experience of online meetings is that they are a poor substitute for face to face.

  • Interesting, the government’s letter confuses in-person (same-time, same-place) and face-to-face (same-time, same or different place). Zoom is face-to-face, just not all faces in the same place. I think the intent of the letter can be satisfied by having a single person in the physical council room/broom cupboard (ie. only a single person can attend and satisfy social distancing requirements) and all others attending remotely via Zoom…

  • Tony Harris 27th Mar '21 - 7:52am

    They can do Brexit in a day and can extend their own emergency powers in a similar period but they can’t extend this. Hum. Something seems fishy to me. I suspect this is a Mogg initiative. He’s never liked government meeting remotely.

  • Steve Comer 27th Mar '21 - 8:36am

    Yet more proof that this Vote Leave Government holds Local Government, and the devolved Assemblies in total contempt.

    Councils should be free to make their own decisions on this, dependent on local circumsances such as infection rates in their areas, and practical issues such as whether the Council Offices have rooms that can hold meetings and maintain 2m separation.

  • I agree with previous comments (it is refreshing to have comments on a Lib Dem Voice article in such alignment).

    The first thing to say is that this applies only to England. The Welsh Government has taken exactly the opposite approach, and converted its temporary coronavirus restrictions into permanent legislation. See:
    The stated purpose of the Welsh Legislation is to “bring meeting procedures into the 21st century”.

    I also do not understand the statement in the letter that “extending the regulations to meetings beyond May 7 would require primary legislation”. The regulations were made under the Coronavirus Act 2020; according to Section 89 of that Act “This Act expires at the end of the period of 2 years beginning with the day on which it is passed”. It was passed on 25th March 2020.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 27th Mar '21 - 4:00pm

    I am very worried about this, indeed. My husband will not have had 3 weeks after his second vaccination, but be told to turn up to a meeting, when he has hardly been in a shop, never mind anywhere else. There will be plenty who have not even had their first vaccination.
    After 38 years of good attendance is he expected to have to be absent from the Parish Council ?
    An awful blow to local democracy, and as someone else said teh Government should keep its nose out of local councils.
    I hope that ALDC will be making very strong representations on this.

  • Nigel Jones 27th Mar '21 - 6:21pm

    @Steve Comer; this government is increasingly authoritarian and there needs to be a campaign to reverse this trend. They threatened a London council with legal action over a decision to close schools early before Christmas, and it soon emerged that the council were right. It is happy to condemn courts that rule against it and are now trying to prevent people using the law to hold it to account.
    We are in dangerous territory when governments aim to use and change law only in a way that give them much more power.

  • And no-one has yet mentioned the reduction of fossil fuel burning brought about by having meetings virtually.

  • Matthew Campbell 27th Mar '21 - 11:57pm

    I believe there are Conservatives out there who believe in local government acting according to the consensus in local communities and in saving the taxpayers’ money by working effectively and not being constrained by unnecessary bureacracy or top-down dictat.

    By sound Conservative principles, this is barking.

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