Virtual council meetings could be coming to an end

laptopsLOCAL councils have been scrabbling to re-arrange some of their meetings to comply with the law.

The government has decided not to extend COVID virtual meeting regulations, which will result in online meetings having no legal status after May 6.

Dorset Council says that between then and June 21, when social distancing rules are expected to ease, it does not have any space where face-to-face meetings could be held while complying with current COVID safety rules.

At County Hall, the most it could legally accommodate would be 18 people, with space for only 15 in a COVID safe way by using all the committee space at South Walks House in Dorchester.

The best they may be able to do is continue to hold virtual meetings and make ‘minded to’ decisions, which would then be delegated to senior council officers to enact.

Dorset Council leader, Cllr Spencer Flower, said: “Being able to hold council meetings virtually has been widely welcomed and a great success for local government during the pandemic.

“I am incredibly disappointed regarding the High Court ruling announced on Wednesday. Speaking to fellow council leaders across the country, we all agree that the government should allow some flexibility in whether meetings are held in person, when social distancing rules allow, or remotely as has been the case for the past year.

“I am hoping that the government will listen to the views of local government leaders and bring forward legislation as soon as possible so that virtual meetings can be part of the arrangements going forward.”

After June 21, when more people are expected to be able to meet indoors, the council should, in theory, be able to hold in person meetings within the safety rules, although many councillors said they would be still be reluctant to attend.

Dorset Council has brought its annual meeting forward to May 4 to avoid the changes and other local, town and parish councils, have made similar moves.

Lyme Regis Town Council will hold its annual town meeting tonight (Thursday) via video conferencing app Zoom, and is expected to return to face-to-face meetings from May 6, although no details about how these will work has been released yet.

By Local Democracy Reporter Trevor Bevins

Woodmead Halls

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