Council business has largely been carried out online and by videolink over the past 12 months, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
But elected councillors and local authority staff face having to return to offices for face-to-face sessions from May 7 after ministers refused to extend rule changes which allowed them to work remotely in the first place.
“I totally disagree with what’s been proposed, doing away with virtual meetings,” said South Tyneside Councillor for Whiteleas Bill Brady.
“I’ve been locked in practically for over 12 months now and I’ve still got certain restrictions because of my health and the rest of it.
“I would not feel safe going to face-to-face meetings, now or anywhere, until this pandemic is clear.
“I don’t agree with it – for this moment in time, as early as May, I think it’s totally, totally out of order.“
Cllr Brady was speaking at a meeting of the borough council’s Planning Committee, which was held by videolink and broadcast via YouTube.
He was backed by Heburn councillor Wilf Flynn, who accused the government of abandoning its responsibilities to local authority staff and elected councillors and predicted ministers would be forced into a u-turn on the policy.
A report for the panel said it was currently ‘unclear’ whether meetings of the borough council’s Planning Committee could be considered lawful if it continued to meet remotely after May 7.
In a letter to council leaders, Luke Hall, the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government accepted many would hold ‘concerns about holding face-to-face meetings’.
But he added it was up to town hall chiefs to ‘ensure meetings take place safely’ and in line with government COVID regulations.
The Local Government Association has also criticised minister for the move, claiming the switch would be a ‘significant challenge’ for councils while social distancing rules remain in place.
It added it would also risk ‘damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process’.
The Local Government Lawyers (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) have launched a High Court challenge, seeking permission to continue remote meetings.