Sussex councils given powers to hold virtual meetings

Sussex councils have been handed new powers to hold public meetings virtually using video or telephone conferencing during the coronavirus lockdown.

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.

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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).

While council chambers will lie empty, virtual council meetings are set to start being held

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.

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