Northamptonshire County
Association of Local Councils

Empowering Parish and Town Councils

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CEO: Danny Moody
6 Litchborough Business Park
Northampton Road
Litchborough, Northampton
NN12 8JB

Tel: 01327 831482

Coronavirus

A guide for parish and town councils in Northamptonshire

This page was first published on 6 March 2020 and last updated on 1 April 2020 at 2:19 p.m. (2nd Briefing published and updates on local authority meeting regulations).

Introduction

This page will be updated with information, guidance and answers to frequently asked questions related to the Coronavirus outbreak. The information is for parish and town councils in Northamptonshire. For general advice, members of the public should visit the UK government's Coronavirus information page.


The Basic Position

Parish and town councils have responded brilliantly to the Coronavirus pandemic and are managing the impact that widespread infection is having on the council's ability to conduct its business. The country is now in "lockdown" meaning that people should only leave their houses when absolutely necessary, and even then should observe social-distancing guidelines.

Parish and town councils have a community leadership role, which means having a cautious but realistic and practical stance. Parish and town councils should try not to contribute towards public panic by, for example, promulgating false or alarmist information.

Parish and town councils can play a key role in disseminating timely, accurate and responsible advice to communities via noticeboards, web sites and social media channels.


Northants CALC Coronavirus Weekly Briefings

Weekly briefings supplement and summarise the information on this web page and provide member councils with a regular round up to help keep them informed. The briefings are listed below, with the most recent at the top.


Coronavirus - Community Response

Any individual, group or organisation (including a parish or town council) that wishes to contribute to the community response should register on Northamptonshire County Council's dedicated web page (link below).

NCC is coordinating the county-wide response, working in partnership with all the borough and district councils, the emergency services, the voluntary and community sector and health organisations.

By registering your activity, NCC will be able to connect you with the right support and guidance, and will be able to direct people needing your help to you.


Local Elections 2020

The Local elections scheduled to take place on Thursday 7 May 2020 have been postponed until May 2021 (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51876269).

Apart from the obvious disruption, the decision has a number of legal implications for parish and town councils. For example, any vacancies occurring on or after 7 November 2019 would have been within six months of an ordinary election and so did not need to be notified to give electors an opportunity to demand a bye-election. Now, those vacancies and any others occurring in the coming months will not be within six months of an ordinary election. However, it would be perverse if electors were able to demand a bye-election under the current circumstances. Northants CALC is in communication with NALC and the Electoral Services teams in Northamptonshire to consider a way forward.

As was the case with the postponement of the 2019 local elections in Northamptonshire, an order in parliament will be required to give legal effect to the postponement and it will presumably set out details such as terms of office, a new date for the elections and other statutory provisions.


Council & Public Meetings

There is no specific Government directive that council meetings or parish meetings cannot go ahead, but the Prime Minister announced on 23 March 2020 that the Government "will stop all gatherings of more than two people in public, excluding people you live with". Consequently, as of 24 March 2020, the National Association of Local Councils is "asking local councils to stop holding any physical meetings or gatherings during this time. This includes full council, committee meetings, annual parish or council meetings."

There is no statutory provision for cancelling ordinary council meetings convened under Standing Orders, but the opinion of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) is "that the likelihood of a successful legal challenge [for not holding a meeting] is low".

The Government's advice is that everyone should stay at home, only going out when absolutely necessary (e.g. to buy food or collect medicines), and then to strictly observe social distancing.

Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said on Monday 16 March 2020 that the Government will consider bringing forward legislation to:

  • Remove the requirement for annual council meetings to take place in person.
  • Allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 25 March 2020 and makes provision for the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations on local authority meetings, including the ability to hold them virtually.

The Local Authorities (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority Meetings) (England) Regulations 2020 are being drafted and we understand that the regulations will be made either this week or next (w/c 6 April 2020). The regulations make provision for holding all council meetings virtually, on a platform such as Zoom. They also cancel the requirement to hold an annual meeting in 2020.


Statutory Responsibilities

Many aspects of parish and town council business are discretionary and can be deferred if necessary. There are however several things that must be done by law and that have a statutory deadline. Examples are:

  • Holding the Annual Parish/Town Meeting on a date between 1 March and 1 June inclusive.
  • Holding the annual meeting of the council on a day in May
  • Approving for signature the Annual Governance and Accountability Return (AGAR) before 1 July.

Now that the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has advised that local authority meetings should not take place, we would expect the Government to deal with the associated consequences, such as the statutory time frames. NALC is in communication with the Government and the Local Government Association (LGA) and will make sure that parish and town councils duties are properly taken into account.

Parish and town councils have various powers in the arena of public health but are not the responsible body (that lies with the county council). Powers that could be used directly or indirectly in response to a big public health crisis include for example Section 198 of the Public Health Act 1936, which provides that "…if required by the Minister [parish councils] shall, provide (a) a mortuary for the reception of dead bodies before interment and (b)a post-mortem room for the reception of dead bodies during the time required to conduct any post-mortem examination ordered by a coroner or other duly authorised authority; and may make byelaws with respect to the management, and charges for the use, of any such place provided by them."


Schemes of Delegation

Many (but not all) council functions can be delegated to a committee or to an officer. Councils may wish to consider a motion to provide for delegation to an officer any decision that must be made if the council is incapacitated and unable to hold a meeting.

Blanket delegations are unsatisfactory and should be avoided. Any delegation needs to be clear, specific and time-limited. There should also be a requirement to publish any decisions taken under the delegated authority as soon as possible.

A suggested form of words would be "In response to the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK and in the event that it is not possible to convene a meeting of the council in a reasonable time, the Clerk shall have delegated authority to make decisions on behalf of the council where such decision cannot reasonably be deferred and must be made in order to comply with a commercial or statutory deadline. The delegation does not extend to matters expressly reserved to the council in legislation or in its Standing Orders or Financial Regulations. Any decisions made under this delegation must be recorded in writing and must be published in accordance with the relevant regulations. This delegated authority ceases upon the first meeting of the council after the council meeting at which the delegation was put in place".


Internal & External Audit

The 2020 round of end of year internal audits starts in the first week of April and continues through May and June. We are predicting significant disruption due to the (potentially sudden) unavailability of the internal auditor, or Clerk, or both. Much of the audit work can now be done remotely, which will help and we are looking at practical steps that we can take to ensure the audit visits are as safe as possible. We are also in communication with Smaller Authority Audit Appointments (SAAA) and PKF Littlejohn to explore what additional flexibility there might be in the audit process and timetable.

PKF Littlejohn, which is the external auditor for all parish and town councils in Northamptonshire, intended to issue instruction for the 2020 audit in the week commencing 23 March 2020 but this has now been delayed pending further advice from MHCLG. We have pressed for the instructions to include specific guidance relating to the possibility of councils being incapacitated during the statutory window for completing the Annual Governance & Accountability Return.

The Government announced on 16 March 2020 that the deadline for local government financial audits will be extended to 30 September 2020, but as yet no details have been released and it is not clear whether this provision will apply to parish and town councils.

For the time being, councils should continue with their normal governance and accountability procedures, but organisation and preparedness are key. Try to have the end of year wrapped up as soon as possible, to give the maximum possible chance to carry out the audit and AGAR process.


Beware Scammers & Fraudsters

Times like these bring out the best in people, and the worst in people. Already we are hearing of unscrupulous exploitation of the situation, including:

  • Fraudulent emails containing hyperlinks or attachments, which people in a heightened state of worry are more likely than normal to click on.
  • Advice circulating on social media that people self-isolating should physically mark their houses in some way if they need help, e.g. by displaying a sticker in their front window or tying a ribbon to their front door. This is effectively putting a target on the house for people up to no good.
  • People offering goods that are in temporarily short supply (e.g toilet roll) or increased demand (e.g. face masks) for sale at knockdown prices, taking payment and then never delivering the goods.
  • Fraudsters posing as volunteers and conning vulnerable (particularly elderly) people by taking their credit cards so that they could do their shopping for them, and then making additional unauthorised purchases.

The list above is a small sample of the depths some people will stoop to. It's a time for being extra-vigilant, pausing before clicking, and making sure that online and offline security measures are in place and up to date.

For further information see https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/.


Organising Events

Parish and town councils may have been organising events such as a Community Spring Clean in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy, or VE Day 75 commemorations. The Government has now advised that such public gatherings should not proceed as it would be virtually impossible to maintain social distancing at all times.


The Role of Northants CALC

Northants CALC will keep member parish and town councils informed as the Coronavirus outbreak progresses. We are liaising with colleagues at the National Association of Local Councils and with county, district and borough councils to help local government bodies in Northamptonshire to respond proactively and proportionately.

We will communicate any significant developments (e.g. directives from the Government or from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)) to all member councils immediately via this web page and/or email.

This web page will be updated as and when there is new information available.