The ruling has been slammed by the Local Government Association (LGA) but the Isle of Wight Council has just said it will put the finishing touches to its plans.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, legislation was passed by the government to allow council meetings across England and Wales to be held remotely to protect participants and stop the spread of the virus.
Over the last year that has meant some of the biggest Isle of Wight issues, including the council’s budget for the upcoming year, have been agreed from the comfort of councillors’ homes.
While there may have been some issues, with councillors forgetting to turn their microphones off, speaking over one another and technical difficulties, it allowed operations to continue during these unprecedented times.
On Thursday, MPs voted to extend emergency coronavirus powers for another 6 months but the Government decided ‘it was not possible to bring forward’ the emergency legislation to allow councils to continue holding remote meetings.
In a letter to council leaders, Luke Hall, Local Government Minister, said the decision was made with the ‘excellent progress’ of the vaccination programme, the reduction of cases and the roadmap out of lockdown in mind.
Mr Hall recognised there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings but with all of those factors, he said there should be a ‘significant reduction in risk’ for local authority members to meet in person from 7th May, the day after local elections.
Local authorities have a legal obligation to ensure members of the press and public can access the meetings, so Mr Hall recommended live streaming continue until at least 21st June, the last phase in the lockdown roadmap, but it was up to the individual councils to decide how they would like to proceed.
Responding to the news, the Isle of Wight Council said as a result of the decision its contingency planning measures will be finalised to ensure formal meetings be conducted in a COVID-secure manner.
One of the first meetings in the council’s calendar after the legislation ends will be the first meeting of the new full council — which would see 39 councillors and a number of council officers meet in person for the first time in a year.
Councillor James Jamieson, chairman of the LGA, said the decision is extremely disappointing, stating the government’s own roadmap only allows indoor gatherings run by a public body to be organised after 17th May and that MPs will be able to participate remotely in proceedings until 21st June but the ‘powers-that-be will not make time available’ to allow councillors to do the same.
He said it was likely to be a significant challenge for local authorities and urged the government to reverse its decision and ‘not force’ meetings to be physically held until all the restrictions are lifted.