Councils exploring hiring large venues to hold meetings after High Court ruling

The make-up of the new Mid Suffolk District Council, which features a 17/17 split on both sides of t

The Endeavour House council chamber prior to Covid did not struggle to fit all councillors, but with social distancing may not be possible - Credit: Jason Noble

Suffolk's councils may be forced to hire large venues to hold meetings in a Covid-secure manner, after government plans backed by the High Court have mandated that meetings must be held in person again from May 7.

The Government earlier this year announced it would not be extending the emergency legislation passed last year under the Coronavirus Act 2020 that allowed councils to hold proceedings via video meetings while the Covid-19 pandemic continued.

It prompted Hertfordshire County Council to lodge a legal challenge to the Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government (MHCLG) over the plans, but the High Court this week ruled in favour of the Government, meaning meetings must be held in person from May 7.

But authorities conducting elections must hold an annual meeting within 21 days of the May 6 polling day, meaning those meetings featuring all councillors must be held before coronavirus restrictions have eased.

Suffolk's authorities have confirmed they are assessing options, but hiring larger external venues such as sports halls is now on the cards as some existing council chambers, while large enough to fit all councillors ordinarily, cannot do so in a socially distanced manner.

A spokesman from Suffolk County Council, which will need space for 75 councillors, said: "Our AGM is scheduled for 27 May. We are currently considering external venues which can accommodate all councillors."

He added that the intention was for other committee meetings, which won't require all councillors to be present, to be held at Endeavour House.

The upgrades in the council chamber will allow meetings from Endeavour House to be streamed online f

Suffolk County Council is among the authorities in Suffolk having to consider an external venue to hold socially-distanced council meetings - Credit: ARCHANT

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It is not yet clear if the cost of hiring those venues will be met by the government in its financial aid packages to authorities, or whether councils will have to stump up the cash themselves and potentially impacting on taxpayers.

Ipswich Borough Council is electing a third of its councillors next week, and will be holding its annual meeting for all 48 councillors on May 19.

A spokesman from the authority said: "Ipswich Borough Council is planning to hold its annual meeting and other meetings such as planning committee at the Town Hall/Corn Exchange complex while Covid restrictions are in place. We are working on the detail of how this will work ahead of the annual meeting on 19 May."

While meetings must be held in person after that date, it is at the discretion of authorities as to whether they offer video streams in addition to that, as some had done prior to Covid.

Committees such as cabinet meetings, licensing and scrutiny will be easier to accommodate because fewer people attend those meetings, but full council meetings where all councillors attend and planning meetings which often require many outside speakers such as parish council representatives, planning agents, and full public galleries will struggle more.

Councils which are not holding elections or just have a by-election are not bound by the same requirement to have an annual meeting within 21 days, however those authorities are working on their own plans.

East Suffolk Council has shrewdly opted to hold its annual meeting virtually online on Wednesday next week to get around the problem, as its council spaces in Melton and Lowestoft will be unlikely to fit all councillors if they have to keep 2m between them.

It is not yet clear if councils will have extra measures in place such as mandatory face masks, requirements for a negative Covid test to be demonstrated or pre-booking seats for the public or press if there is limited public seating.

A spokeswoman from Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils said: “Our monitoring officer has been working with both Babergh and Mid Suffolk district council leaders to find suitable solutions for holding in person meetings in anticipation of the end of the virtual meeting legislation and following the recent High Court ruling.

"Our absolute priority is to ensure that we are able to hold open and transparent meetings, in a Covid-secure way. Members of the public will be able to see the arrangements in place for each meeting by viewing the meeting agenda.”

A representative from West Suffolk Council said: "We have heard the High Court has ruled against a case, supported by Government, for council meetings to remain online. The High Court decided meetings can only take place in a physical location after 7 May. This creates a number of issues and the situation may still change.

"However, in the meantime, we are working up plans for how this can be achieved to ensure open democracy while keeping people Covid-safe. Once we have those details we will share with the public.”

East Suffolk Council has been approached for comment.