Richmondshire councillors use loophole to continue with virtual meetings

Richmondshire District Council offices at Mercury House. Photo: Google.

Richmondshire District Council has approved using a loophole to get around a Government decision to force councillors to meet in person, handing all decision-making powers to unelected officers.

Ahead of a High Court ruling over whether councils should be able to continue holding decision-making meetings online, the authority’s elected members agreed to make recommendations which its chief executive officer would officially approve.

The authority is among many in the region whose council chambers are not able to accommodate socially-distanced meetings. Many councillors say virtual meetings have been successful and authorities should be given flexibility to hold them.

Authorities such as 72-member North Yorkshire County Council are facing having to use taxpayers money to hire large-scale venues for some meetings and have been left examining which other meetings are essential.

While the High Court ruling is expected imminently, Local Government Lawyers had been told to prepare for the loss of virtual meetings after May 6.

Richmondshire officers said they would keep the legal situation under continuous review, but as the council had nowhere to meet it was necessary to prepare for after May 6 by handing powers to its chief executive.

They said delegating decisions to the chief executive would be removed as soon as possible, but if the High Court decided fresh legislation was needed, decisions at the council would need to be delegated for months.

The meeting was told a list of all decisions would be made publicly available.

Councillor Leslie Rowe objected to the move, saying the Government needed to be told the council could not function properly without virtual meetings.

He said the loss of the ability of hold remote meetings would see the authority handing over power to unelected officials and leave parish councils that don’t have an officer to make decisions placed in invidious positions.

He added: “I don’t think it’s appropriate that a council should take to devices to get around what is effectively government legislation.”

However, the overwhelmingly majority of members agreed to hand all decisions to its long-serving chief executive Tony Clark.

The authority’s deputy leader Councillor Helen Grant said the move was about safeguarding the council rather than relinquishing powers.