CITY leaders could be forced to decamp to alternative bases in Sunderland following a High Court ruling.

A rule change implemented at the start of the coronavirus pandemic has allowed councils across the country to hold meetings remotely by videolink to comply with social distancing rules.

But, despite a legal challenge, this is expected to revert back to its previous position this month, which would compel local authorities to hold key meetings in person.

Bosses at Sunderland City Council have confirmed a search is already underway for a suitable venue to hold meetings where the current Civic Centre set up would not be appropriate.

A council spokesman said: “Preparations are underway for council meetings to be held in person with effect from Friday, May 7.

“The intention is to hold meetings in either the Council Chamber at the Civic Centre or, where social distancing can be accommodated, in larger committee rooms.

“We are also looking at the Beacon of Light as a venue for the Annual Council meeting.

“Further details will be confirmed in due course.”

The city council’s Audit and Governance Committee was held on Friday by videolink, but councillors are not expected to meet for any official business again until later this month, following this week's round of local elections..

City councillors have not met in person since March 31 last year (2020), when a special meeting was held and attended by just 25 out of a total of 74 sitting councillors, who kept several seats between themselves to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Following this, councils were granted temporary permission to hold meetings remotely, but an attempt to make this permanent heard in the High Court last Wednesday was defeated.

Following the hearing, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils, warned forcing local authorities to abandon remote meetings could damage the ‘significantly increased participation by the public’ many have seen over the last 12 months.

LGA chairman James Jamieson said: “It is very disappointing that this last avenue to allow councils to hold online and hybrid meetings whilst COVID-19 restrictions are still in force has not been successful.

“Councils by law, have to hold annual meetings within 21 days following local elections, so many will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person.”