Durham County Council preparing to hold 'in-person' meetings again after High Court ruling

Durham County Council is making preparations to hold ‘in-person’ council meetings again – the first to take place in more than a year.

Friday, 30th April 2021, 9:49 pm
Durham County Hall.

Local authorities have been allowed to hold meetings virtually under temporary powers granted by the Government early in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Durham County Council, like many local authorities, moved its business online using video conferencing technology which allowed the public to watch proceedings from home.

As current powers for councils to hold remote meetings are due to expire after May 6, council officials are planning a return to in-person meetings once again.

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A legal bid was previously launched by Hertfordshire County Council to allow the online meetings for local authorities to continue, but that was rejected by the High Court earlier this week.

The ruling means that meetings must resume within weeks – despite some lockdown measures being due to remain until at least late-June.

One of the first tests for County Durham will be the local authority’s annual meeting – which would normally summon all 126 elected councillors to the council chamber at Durham County Hall.

Some North East councils have already announced their intention to hold socially distanced annual meetings in external venues, with South Tyneside councillors set to meet in Temple Park Leisure Centre.

However, Durham County Council have said details for the future of council meetings, including the annual meeting, will be confirmed in due course.

Helen Lynch, the council’s head of legal and democratic services, said: “We are disappointed with the outcome of the hearing as we would have liked to continue with remote meetings beyond May 6.

“We would support a change to primary legislation to allow meetings to be held in this way in the future.

“This would allow us to be flexible in providing access to our meetings for both councillors as well as the public.

“By law, we have to hold an annual meeting within 21 days following the county council election.

“To meet this requirement and allow for appropriate social distancing measures, it will not be possible to hold the annual meeting with 126 councillors in the council chamber at County Hall.

“We have been planning for this eventuality and arrangements for the meeting and other meetings of the authority will be confirmed in due course.”

In a recent statement Cllr James Jamieson, Local Government Association (LGA) chairman, said the High Court judgement was “very disappointing.”

He said: “Councils want to continue to have powers to hold online and hybrid meetings even when restrictions have been lifted.

“A recent LGA survey of its members revealed that 83% of councils said they would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings both online and in a hybrid way once the coronavirus emergency was over if they had the power.

“The current flexibility has been paramount in allowing access for both councillors and the public into council meetings.

“Many councils have, in fact, seen significantly increased participation by the public in meetings where important decisions are made about planning, housing and the provision of local services.”

Cllr Jamieson added: “The Government gave clear evidence at the hearing in support of allowing the option of online and hybrid meetings.

“Unfortunately, the judgement is clear that primary legislation is needed to allow councils to use technology to hold meetings.”

A government spokesperson added: “We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.

“Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after May 6 and should continue to prepare accordingly.”