Though the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on UK councils, one chink of light has been the rapid adoption of remote meetings as a way of maintaining local democratic accountability. Effectively banned before the pandemic, there is a real desire to retain the benefits moving forward.
However, the exceptional regulations that made this shift possible will no longer apply on or after 7th May 2021 unless new legislation is passed. Put simply, councils will once again be required by law to hold all major public meetings in person, potentially squandering the success of the past year and all while the virus is still at large.
The ridiculousness of the situation has put the issue of remote meetings in local government firmly in the spotlight, with a legal challenge and newly launched Government open consultation set to determine whether the law should be changed. This blog summarises these latest developments and explores what they will mean for councils and their technology suppliers.
A Failed Legal Challenge
While remote meetings may seem relatively ubiquitous even before the pandemic, they were something of a novelty in local government. Before COVID-19, all council public meetings were legally required to take place in a designated location and only those attending in person could vote on key decisions. This changed in April 2020 as new regulations were brought in to permit virtual public meetings for the first time in England. Similar arrangements were also made to cover local authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland, though this was not necessary for Scotland as the law already permitted remote access.
However, there is a significant catch in that the measures are time-limited until 7th May 2021. This has prompted local government leaders to explore various avenues that would enable remote meetings to continue. In January 2021, lawyers acting on behalf of two local government organisations began lobbying the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, to table new primary legislation that would solve the issue. Unfortunately, these demands were rejected on the grounds there is not enough Parliamentary time to debate them (despite the opposition saying they will work with the Government to find the necessary time). A more direct route has also been taken via a legal challenge, arguing that remote meetings can be held based on a careful reading of the existing legislation. However, on 28th April the High Court ruled against it.
Local government leaders certainly remain frustrated by the lack of urgency from Whitehall over the issue. With the recently launched open consultation running for 12 weeks, there is little hope of it having any meaningful immediate impact. With upcoming local elections for 143 councils across England on 6th May, this means all will be legally required to hold full council meetings soon after without any provision for remote access. This will see potentially hundreds unnecessarily forced into venues, many of which will have to be specifically sourced at great cost to the councils involved to maintain social distancing. Where this is not possible, it will mean limits on the number of councillors in attendance until social distancing measure are no longer required (on 21st June at the earliest).
An Ongoing Appetite for Remote Meetings
What is especially frustrating is that the Government seem to be ambivalent at best, and opposed at worst, to the arguments in favour of maintaining remote meetings. Once the pandemic has passed, most council leaders are keen to adopt a hybrid model going forward, where some members attend virtually and others in person. Birmingham City Council – one of the largest UK councils by population – has committed to enabling all meetings to be delivered as hybrid meetings over the next two years, provided they are legally able to do so, as have several others.
There are several benefits to such an approach. Firstly, from a democratic perspective, it enables more people to have access to, and play an active role in, local government, especially in rural areas. Secondly, there are clear environmental benefits, especially now that local authorities are becoming more aware of their role in tackling climate change. Thirdly, there is an immediate financial incentive to make ongoing use of video conferencing and web-casting technologies that many councils invested in at the start of the pandemic.
Despite the difficulties, it seems likely there will be some change in the law in the long term due to the overwhelming weight behind such a move across the sector. In 2019, a previous consultation exploring remote meetings at joint committees and combined authorities concluded there would be benefits given the long distances often required to travel by those attending. However, while it fell short of recommending these meetings be run entirely online – it argued remote access should only be allowed from sites suitable for holding a meeting with public access, such as a town hall, and not a private residence – it did acknowledge remote meetings would benefit other local authorities, especially those in predominantly rural areas.
The Market Impact
Provided the law eventually changes, likely given the weight of feeling behind such a move, there will be a host of video conferencing opportunities for suppliers. Even if it does not happen, councils will be keen to maintain public access, something that remote access has facilitated. For instance, Rother District Council is considering installing a new hybrid meeting solution for its main council chamber. Other councils have also outlined spend for this very purpose, including Cornwall Council and Trafford Council which have earmarked £100k and £130k respectively.
Tech suppliers wanting to take advantage will need to chip away at the dominance of a handful of established vendors. In the video conferencing space, although there are no recent figures on adoption rates, figures collated last year by the LGA show that Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been the clear favourites in use across England. Similar figures collated by South Ayrshire Council for Scotland’s 32 local authorities also show Teams to be a frontrunner, no surprise considering it is bundled as part of Office 365.
Rivals will need to use the ubiquity of MS Teams to their advantage, emphasising how their platforms are better suited for the specific challenges of the local government market. In terms of the challenges of enabling hybrid meetings across local government, suppliers will need to cater to large civic meetings with access from corporate and personal devices. Other key requirements include the need for accurate subtitling, transcriptions, and a voting/polling system that can be used by all attendees whether in the building or elsewhere.