City of York Council makes U-turn on banning public from attending meeting 11 minutes before it starts

City of York Council has made a U-turn on a decision to ban the public from attending a public meeting 11 minutes before it was due to start.

Residents raised concerns after the agenda for City of York Council’s annual council meeting said it would not be open to members of the public to attend in person but would be broadcast live on Youtube.

Since May 7 council meetings must be held in public. Local authorities have sought larger venues to accommodate more people under social distancing guidelines – with Calderdale Council holding its annual council meeting at Halifax Minster with all 51 councillors and guests, and more than 70 people at a Cambridgeshire County Council meeting hosted by the Imperial War Museum in Duxford.

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York council’s meeting agenda said that due to Covid-19 restrictions the number of people allowed to attend the meeting, held yesterday (Thursday May 27) at 11am at York Assembly Rooms, would be limited and no members of the public permitted. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

But York council’s meeting agenda said that due to Covid-19 restrictions the number of people allowed to attend the meeting, held yesterday (Thursday May 27) at 11am at York Assembly Rooms, would be limited and no members of the public permitted.

York resident Gwen Swinburn wrote to councillors and council staff to say the public must be allowed to attend.

She highlighted a High Court decision on April 21 2021 that says: “We say nothing about the numbers of the members of the public who should admitted in person, which will no doubt be subject to current public health or Government guidance. But subject to that practical consideration, or any other legislative intervention, where the requirement for the meeting to be "open to the public" or "held in public" applies, members of the public must be admitted in person as well.”

Yesterday at 10.49am the council said the attendance for the meeting had been reviewed and one member of the public and one member of the press would be allowed in, on a first come first served basis.

The council said that due to public health guidance around social distancing, numbers at the meeting were strictly limited and that there would be no traditional civic lunch following the annual council meeting.

Ian Floyd, chief operating officer at the council, said: “The health and safety of our members, members of the press and the public has been our main priority throughout the process of arranging this meeting.

“We have reviewed our risk assessment daily to ensure this meeting is as covid-secure as possible.

“Following our most recent update, in line with national guidance and with new information and final confirmation of attendee numbers, we were able to allocate one space for public attendance, and one for the press. We recognise that public access to meetings is important, and therefore, members of the public can view the meeting of Annual Council online at https://www.york.gov.uk/webcasts

“We remain dedicated to ensuring meetings are run as safely as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said where councils are holding in-person meetings, they are required by the Local Government Act 1972 to allow members of the public to attend in person – but it is up to councils to be satisfied they have met public health guidance.

The spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year and backed the legal claim to allow them to continue.

“However, as councils now need to meet in person, we have published updated guidance on how to minimise the risks of face-to-face meetings, supported by unprecedented emergency funding to manage the impact of the pandemic.

“We have launched a call for evidence on remote meetings and their use during the pandemic to inform any potential next steps in the future.”