The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill acts upon long running asks from councils and the LGA for further devolution in England. We are pleased that the Government has proposed to speed up the process and make good on its commitment to offer all of England the opportunity to benefit from a devolution deal by 2030. It is also important that councils of all sizes are engaged in the devolution process.
Amendment relating to remote meetings
New Clause 158 tabled by Baroness Mcintosh of Pickering (Conservative) would enable local authorities to meet virtually. It is based on regulation 5 of the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020, made under section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020.
- The LGA has long been calling for urgent legislation to allow councils the flexibility to use virtual meeting options.
- Under current legislation, the Local Government Act 1972, local authorities cannot meet virtually and councillors joining a council meeting virtually cannot be recorded as attending, vote or be counted toward the quoracy of the meeting. A High Court judgement confirmed this interpretation of the legislation in 2021, putting it beyond doubt that councillors cannot attend council meetings virtually under the current legislation.
- The legislation drafted more than fifty years ago, has had the unintended consequence of requiring in-person attendance despite modern developments in technology that have created a similar level of experience virtually as in person, with the added benefit of lowering the barriers of engagement for many people who would find in-person attendance prohibitive. This includes parents, carers, disabled people and working people – all groups under-represented as elected representatives.
- During the Coronavirus pandemic, specific legislation was passed to allow councils to meet virtually. This allowed councils to test new virtual meeting technologies in local democratic systems and see the impact of this flexibility in practice. The benefits were numerous, and the sector widely agrees that failing to extend or make this flexibility permanent in 2021 was a retrograde step.
- LGA research in 2021 found that most councils supported the retention of powers to hold public meetings virtually (74 per cent and all respondents). In addition, research undertaken six months after the reintroduction of in-person-only meetings found that councillor and public attendance had reduced since returning to in-person meetings in three-quarters of respondents, with many saying that some of their councillors had been unable to attend all or the majority of their in-person council meetings. This represents an unnecessary democratic deficit, with elected representatives being unable to regularly attend council meetings because of very restrictive attendance requirements contrary to the interests of their local communities.
- In response to the sector, the Government conducted a Call for evidence on remote council meetings, which closed in June 2021. No results, analysis or response has ever been published, and no date for a response has been confirmed even now, almost two years on.
- Local councillors are passionate about representing their local community and can make a massive difference to the quality of life of local people. Good democratic decision-making needs people who reflect the range of experiences, backgrounds and insights that exist in their local communities, including women, parents, carers, workers and disabled people. We at the LGA and in local authority work hard through our Be a councillor campaign to encourage people to stand for election, but the requirement to attend council meetings in person is a significant deterrent to many people and for others, is impossible, essentially barring them from standing for election.
- In the interest of strengthening the inclusivity and functionality of everyday and emergency local decision-making, we are calling on Government to permanently allow councils the flexibility to use virtual meeting technologies for council meetings. In addition, it is essential that Government is not overly prescriptive about the circumstances under which councils can use virtual hybrid meeting formats. Councils and councillors are best placed to decide how and when to use different meeting formats to balance the advantages and disadvantages of different meeting options and reflect the variety of local authority types and governance arrangements. Councils will need considerable flexibility for local determination as to how and when to utilise virtual and hybrid meetings to ensure they can realise the benefits of different meeting options to suit their local context.
Amendment relating to taxi and private hire vehicle licensing
Lord Moylan’s (Conservative) amendment inserts a new clause after clause 214 that would require the Secretary of State to consult within a reasonable timeframe on the proposal of the Government within its Levelling Up White Paper of February 2022 "...to explore transferring control of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing to both combined authorities and upper-tier authorities”.
- The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper contains a proposal to explore transferring control of taxi and private hire vehicle licensing to both combined authorities and upper-tier authorities.
- We have concerns about this approach, and do not believe that a potentially major reform to taxi/PHV licensing such as this should be considered or implemented in isolation: it must be part of a full and holistic look at all the current issues and challenges in taxi/PHV licensing.
- The LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board is opposed to the idea of transferring control of taxi/PHV licensing to a different tier of local government due to concerns about the safeguarding implications of less local oversight. It is also important to note that taxi/PHV licensing does not happen in isolation – it is part of a much wider set of licensing authority responsibilities and therefore any possible changes should also consider the implications for other regimes such as alcohol and entertainment and gambling licensing.
- The LGA will continue to engage with officials at the Department for Transport as they develop their plans for bringing forward this consultation.
Contact: Colm Howard-Lloyd, Head of Public Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement
Email: [email protected]