Jonathan Easton looks at the problems that local authorities are facing in relation to decision making in the light of COVID-19
“The art of our necessities is strange
That can make vile things precious”
Those involved in the planning/public sector have not always been the quickest to embrace technology. Nonetheless, many councils have much of the infrastructure necessary for officers to work remotely and this could prove essential to keeping the lights burning – provided that everyone recognises the role that (“vile”) technology can play as a temporary stopgap.
In two important documents, the Association of Democratic Services Officers have suggested a way forward:
- Joint Statement from ADSO and LLG – LA decision making and democracy in light of coronavirus: https://www.adso.co.uk/joint-statement-from-adso-and-llg-la-decision-making-and-democracy-in-light-of-coronavirus/
- Letter to Secretary of State https://www.adso.co.uk/letter-to-sos-covid-19-implications-for-local-authority-governance/
A major sticking point is that Sch. 12, §39(1) Local Government Act 1972 requires councillors to be physically present at a meeting when local authority decisions are taken. The ADSO is seeking an urgent amendment to the Local Government Act to allow the remote participation and voting by councillors at essential council meetings.
For the time being, a number of Councils are making/have made urgent amendments to their constitutions to allow Heads of Service to take decisions that would otherwise be taken by Committee. The model being adopted by a number of authorities is that a decision – which would otherwise have been on the agenda for a committee – is now made by an officer but that the officer is advised in their decision-making by the views of members of the committee. This advice is gathered remotely at an agreed time by way of Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc. In most cases the officer would be likely to give overwhelming weight to the views of Members if they did not have a formal vote. This is an flexible response borne of necessity.