Is the safety of town and parish councillors not as important as that of our MPs?
That's the question being raised by Independent Leighton-Linslade Town Councillor Mark Freeman following the Government's failure to sanction online council meetings beyond early May.
With the pandemic far from over, MPs last week voted to allow Parliament to continue to use remote proceedings due to Covid, but with councils it's a different matter as they are expected to ensure essential meetings take place in person and follow the necessary Covid guidance.
Leighton-Linslade Town Council itself says it is lobbying the government with the support of South West Beds MP Andrew Selous to have the legislation to allow virtual meetings extended.
But it points out that, as it stands, meetings would grind to a halt after May 7 as the council does not have a venue which would allow the public and councillors to gather safely indoors on social distancing grounds. However it adds that council business and decisions would continue through contingency measures it has ready.
Cllr Freeman has accused the government of not considering the needs of local councils adequately during the pandemic, saying that upon the first lockdown in March 2020 there was no legislation to allow online meetings until June.
He said: "Now the online system is mainly working well, and we are all getting used to them, the Government has announced that they will not be renewing the legislation and remote meetings will no longer be permitted after May 7. They have even suggested we hold our annual meetings before that date so that they can be attended by all councillors. After this they say we can meet face-to-face. How can this be done allowing sufficient space for social distancing requirements?
"What about those councillors who have been shielding either for themselves or their partner’s wellbeing? Most of us have been unable to see family members for much of the last year – but now it alright to hold meetings. Of course, Parliament renewed emergency powers last week – including the ability for the House of Commons to continue to use remote attendance."
While grateful to Mr Selous for making representation on the town council's behalf, Cllr Freeman added: "Why is there one rule for MPs and a different one for those of us who give their time voluntarily to allow local government to provide the services, like our parks and open spaces, that make the life of our townspeople a little better?"
Conservative town council leader, Cllr Steve Jones, described the past year as "challenging", but said the council had positively responded through the use of the Microsoft Teams to host its meetings.
Cllr Jones said: "The use of the Teams platform has allowed those who have an interest in the business of the council to attend meetings virtually without having to compromise their own health and safety.
"During this time, the council has been able to carry on its business with many decisions made including keeping council tax unchanged and waiving the fees for our market traders for example.
"Together with our MP, we are actively lobbying the government to find Parliamentary time to extend the legislation to allow virtual meetings regardless of the easing of lockdown restrictions and will continue so to do.
"Whilst we are no different to any other parish in terms of the decision making powers at our disposal, our parish by way of population size makes it very difficult to hold meetings in person given that no facility we have, or indeed can have access to, could allow the public and its elected members to gather safely indoors on social distancing grounds."
Cllr Jones added: "In the event that the council is unable to carry on holding virtual meetings, this will not compromise the business of the council as contingency measures have been put in place. By this, any planned decisions that have to be taken will be made at the council meeting to be held at the end of April.
"Thereafter, by way of a scheme of delegation, any unforeseen and pressing decisions will be taken in the same way as in the early months of the pandemic when it was not possible to hold meetings virtually. The town council used this scheme of delegation very successfully but it is not an ideal solution or sustainable in the long term.”
Mr Selous told the LBO: “ I am disappointed that there is not enough legislative time for the primary legislation needed to allow councils to continue to meet remotely after May 7. The government is consulting on allowing remote meetings in future but I do apologise to councillors for the difficulties they may face before large-scale meetings become possible.”
Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government Luke Hall said: "Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time.
"As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from May 7 are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way. I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option."