The mayor of Andover has said that she thinks virtual meetings over the past year have been “a good idea” to help members of the public engage with politics.

Councillor Barbara Long was responding to a question from the Advertiser at the town council’s annual Town Electors meeting, held in the Guildhall with members of the public also able to view proceedings virtually. The meeting was sparsely attended in person, though this is not unusual for Town Electors meetings.

Cllr Long said: “I think the fact that we were able to hold Zoom meetings throughout the year meant that we did surprisingly well. An awful lot of town councils didn’t do that. There was a short period of time where we weren’t able to hold meetings at all but the Zoom meetings have been productive and useful.

“Unfortunately, we still have Covid riles in place with social distancing but we no longer have the extension that allows us to hold meetings virtually which has created its own problems, as you can see.

“We can’t get everybody in the Guildhall and Zoom meeting are allowing people to attend so until restrictions are completely lifted it’s going to continue how it is at the moment.”

In March 2020, the government’s Coronavirus Act allowed councils to ignore sections of the Local Government Act 1972 and the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960, which state that “any meeting of a body exercising public functions… shall be open to the public”.

This allowed remote meetings to be held instead, which are not specifically regulated for under the act. However, the Coronavirus Act had a ‘sunset clause’, with its legal force relating to virtual meetings ending on May 7.

A group of interested parties, including Hertfordshire County Council, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers, had taken the government to court to seek clarity if meetings could be held remotely and still be deemed to be public after this date. However, following their hearing, it was ruled that remote meetings could only continue if new legislation was brought forward.

At present, the government does not intend to extend the provisions, citing “severe pressure” on its legislative programme. It has also ruled out passing a new law for council meetings to be held remotely indefinitely.

Cllr Long said: “I think it would be difficult for it [the remote meeting provisions] to be brought back in because that would have to be done via legislation. That is why carrying on with Zoom meetings wasn’t possible.

“I think it enabled more people to attend meetings as not everyone can come to the Guildhall if they’ve just finished work, so I think enabling people to log in at home so we can engage more with the public is a good idea. I think we’re going to carry on with hybrid meetings, where our biggest problem is trying to get the sound right.”

She added that “every level of government should be geared to try and get people involved,” especially town councils.

She said: “Town and parish councils are the grassroots and are the nearest to residents. At other layers, further up, people are a bit more interested in politics. The parish level is where people know their area extremely well.”