A High Court ruling that means council meetings can no longer be held virtually from May 7 has been labelled “disappointing” by Lewisham’s chief executive after an increase in public participation.  

From April last year, as part of the Coronavirus Act 2020, mandatory council meetings were legally allowed to be held remotely, such as via Teams or Zoom.  

However, despite restrictions expected to remain throughout May, the Government said it would not extend the legislation, meaning in-person meetings would have to resume.  

Hertfordshire County Council challenged the decision in court, but its bid was dismissed by judges on Wednesday (April 28).  

They said primary legislation would be needed to extend the use of virtual meetings and it was not for the courts to set it.  

Kim Wright, chief executive of Lewisham Council, said participation in council meetings had gone up since they went online.

She also raised concerns around the safety of meeting in person and said the move “contradicts the Government's own guidelines on indoor gatherings”. 

“We are disappointed by the decision that councils must return to in-person meetings from May 7.  

“Lewisham Council has been meeting online since the start of the pandemic and made representations to the Government, calling for local authorities to be granted the flexibility to continue virtual meetings while national Covid-19 guidelines and the need to socially distance remains.  

“Our priority is the safety of our residents, staff and councillors and this ruling contradicts the Government's own guidelines on indoor gatherings.  

“While we understand some people are keen to attend meetings in person, we've actually seen participation in virtual council meetings increase and local government has learnt some important lessons about how we encourage more people to engage and take part in local democracy.

“Holding in-person meetings is going to be challenging but we will ensure they go ahead safely and transparently and will share details in due course,” she said.  

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.

“Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after May 6 and should continue to prepare accordingly.”