While a number of local authorities have held meetings over the last few weeks, none have been available for the public to view live.
East Sussex County Council has had two lead member meetings where decisions have been taken remotely, while a West Sussex County Council task and finish group is set to meet virtually next week to discuss possible school closures.
Now the Government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic effective from Saturday (April 4).
Ministers say this will enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive.
Meetings would remain accessible whilst ensuring that councillors, staff and the wider public are able to follow Government advice by staying at home to stop the spread of coronavirus to protect the NHS and save lives.
Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.
“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.
“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.
“We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6 billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time.”
James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are working tirelessly to support their communities as they rise to the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus crisis.
“Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.
“Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives.”
The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.
The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.
The Government is also working to bring in new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before May 6, 2021. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed council and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for Thursday May 7 until May 6, 2021.
A message from the Editor, Gary Shipton:
Thank you for reading this story on our website.
But I also have an urgent plea to make of you.
In order for us to continue to provide high quality local news on this free-to-read site and in print, please purchase a copy of our newspaper as well. With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on our town centres and many of our valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you buying a copy.
Our journalists are highly trained by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards anywhere in the world. Our content is universally trusted - as all independent research proves.
As Baroness Barran said in a House of Lords debate this week on the importance of journalists: “Not only are they a trusted source of facts, but they will have a role to play in rallying communities and getting the message across about how we can keep ourselves and our families safe, and protect our NHS. Undoubtedly, they have a critical role.”
But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis. In return we will continue to forensically cover the local news - not only the impact of the virus but all the positive and uplifting news happening in these dark days.
In addition, please write to your MP urging the Government to provide some additional financial support for local newspapers and their websites like this one and ensuring that supermarkets continue to stock them. I cannot stress enough how important such an intervention would be.
We thank all our readers and advertisers for their understanding and support - and we wish YOU all the best in the coming weeks. Keep safe, and follow the Government advice. Thank you.