England & Wales

The future of mayoral governance and implications for city leadership


This blog is based on a LGiU member briefing by David Marlow. Click here for more information about LGiU membership.

In the aftermath of local elections and mayoral referendums on May 2012, there is a need to take stock of future prospects for mayoral governance in English Local Authorities, and also of the related implications of concurrent developments for city leadership.

Notwithstanding the rejection of elected mayor at referendums in nine major cities, by the end of 2012 England will have the London Mayor operating at world-city/regional scale, and 16 further Mayors covering a population of 3.6 million, and an economic footprint of around 2 million jobs and over £100 billion gross added value (GVA). Elected Mayors will therefore be an important part of local governance and local economic development landscapes for the foreseeable future.

There is very little national clarity and sense of direction for the future of elected Mayors from government, although they remain interested in the model. This gives an opportunity for the local government sector, together with partners, to shape solutions that work locally and have national significance and replicability.

This blog outlines considerations and strategic choices facing local authorities with existing and prospective directly-elected mayors. It also considers other developing approaches to political and strategic leadership of local economic growth, and the interplay between mayoral and Council Leader systems. Sector-wide and specific local development and capacity-building exercises would assist Mayoral effectiveness and relationships with neighbours.

Directly-elected mayors in English Local Government

Directly elected mayors were first introduced in England for Greater London under the GLA Act 1999, and provision was made for their introduction throughout the country in the Local Government Act (LGA) 2000. Under LGA2000 directly elected mayors were adopted following approvals by referendums in 12 local authorities during the following five years (2001-06):-

  •  Three London boroughs (Hackney, Lewisham, Newham);
  • Six unitary councils (Doncaster, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, Stoke-on-Trent, Torbay);
  • Three district councils (Bedford – which became unitary in 2009, Mansfield and Watford).

In addition:-

  •  Tower Hamlets adopted the model after referendum in 2010
  • Leicester introduced the model by council resolution in 2011
  • Liverpool introduced the model by council resolution at the recent May 2012 elections
  • Salford also introduced it at May 2012 elections but after referendum

Also, in terms of ‘mayoralities’ established under LGA2000:-

  • Stoke on Trent voted to abolish the system in 2008 and returned to the Council Leader and Cabinet system
  • Doncaster held a referendum to abolish the system in May 2012, but the electors chose to retain it

Finally, in this rather complex landscape, the Coalition Government determined to seek Mayoral referendums in 12 cities as part of their programme of local government reform in 2010. Both Leicester and Liverpool bypassed this process through adopting the model by Council resolution (under an amendment to LGA2000 introduced by the former government in 2006). Ten referendums were therefore held on 3 May, as a result of which:-

  • Bristol will move to directly-elected mayor governance in November 2012
  • Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield voted against the proposition

Proponents of the mayoral ‘model’ (which has included at times both Blair and Cameron) were broadly supportive of directly-elected mayors, suggesting they would revitalise local politics and provide decisive and directly accountable local leadership. Opponents of directly-elected mayors, who have tended to include the majority of local councillors in the major parties, have feared authoritarian leadership and corruption.

Initially the introduction of elected mayors did produce a number of non-traditional winners of mayoral elections. Ken Livingstone first won London as an independent; whilst Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough, Stuart Drummond in Hartlepool, and Frank Branston in Bedford did not come from the major political parties. Latterly, however, Labour has tended to dominate the introduction of new mayoralities, Leicester in 2011, Liverpool and Salford in 2012. Tower Hamlets was won by an independent mayor.

Many commentators have questioned whether there is a coherent ‘mayoral model’. The system has been adopted by a varying range of councils/areas at different times, under differing legislative provision. Powers of mayors have been either restricted (under LGA2000 effectively to the powers of a local authority with Leader and Cabinet) or unclear (for Mayors to be adopted under the Coalition’s Localism Act 2011). National political support has been ambiguous and spasmodic, and a range of other governance and public service reforms (e.g. from Elected Police Commissioners to LEPs) has paid little attention to a specific role for Mayors. In addition, for those core cities (and their hinterlands) who rejected the model in the latest referendums, Government appears to offer an alternative pathway to increased decentralisation and particularly influence over local economic growth through, inter alia, Combined Authorities (on a city region basis) and ‘new city deals’.

However, once Bristol has introduced the model in November, in addition to the internationally-significant London Mayor operating at world-city/regional scale, ‘Mayoralities’ in England will cover 16 local authorities (of which 14 are unitary), two core cities, and a population of 3.6 million. These local authority mayors provide the potential of strong local political leadership of economies delivering up to 2 million jobs and making an annual GVA contribution of around £50 billion outside London and an even higher amount within London (given Canary Wharf is in Tower Hamlets).

The elected mayor will therefore remain an important dimension of England’s local government and probably its local economic growth landscape for the foreseeable future.

The uncertain and evolving powers and status of elected mayors

As stated above, one of the fundamental issues for elected mayors has been the powers which they have at their disposal. The London Mayor, under the GLA Act, is a very prominent national and international figure, with extensive powers and influence over Transport, city-wide strategic planning, housing and economic development. These powers have been deepened under both Labour and the Coalition in existing functions, and extended to include Police and Fire Services, Regeneration, waste and public health etc. The Mayor has also been extremely influential in attracting major government investment (e.g. Crossrail, Olympics etc), and has been a credible champion for London on both national and global platforms.

In terms of the 16 (other) local authorities with mayoral governance, strictly, the LGA2000 gives the role no more status than Leader and Cabinet models. However, both prominent Conservatives and Labour supporters of the model envisage the role as transformational, and therefore have advocated additional formal powers and status.

The coalition has attempted to address this in various ways since 2010. For instance, initially it was suggested that newly formed Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) might be chaired by an elected mayor – although this became untenable when no LEPs contiguous with mayoralities were established.

More seriously, in late-2011 DCLG consulted on potential powers for new city mayors. The consultation was restricted to the 12 ‘mayoral cities’ (i.e. Leicester, Liverpool and the ten cities required to hold referendums on 3 May 2012). Government’s approach was to invite individual ‘mayoral cities’ to make proposals as to which powers they would wish to have. Responses from the twelve cities focused on planning, transport, employment and economic development – although there was some appetite for mayoral roles in health and police.

The government should now complete and agree new dispensations with Leicester, Liverpool and Bristol (post-November), although it rather ‘jumped the gun’ in Liverpool by agreeing a ‘new city deal’ (reported to include £75 million of new government investment and largely focused on economic development and employment) as part of Liverpool’s proposal to move immediately to the mayoral model without a referendum.

Finally, in the run-up to the May referenda, Cameron offered a bi-annual Cabinet of elected city mayors, as part of a package to incentivise the ten remaining mayoral cities to adopt the model – giving the political leadership of these cities unprecedented access to and the prestige of regular direct dialogue at the most senior levels of national government.

Naturally, these approaches have been resented by the earlier mayoralities who have sought to be included in any new mayoral powers and status. Given government’s localism agenda, and a willingness to evolve arrangements, it remains unclear precisely what powers and resources existing and new mayors might attract over the coming period. It seems unlikely either that these will be akin to the London Mayor, OR, as things stand, that the London Mayor would wish to be involved in a cohort of local authority elected mayors.

Evaluations and assessments of mayoral governance

A number of studies and assessments have been made of mayoral experience in England – mainly by think tanks and academics. In general, these are inconclusive, but the positive impacts tend to outweigh the negative. A strong overview is provided in the Institute for Government publication ‘What can elected mayors do for our cities?’, produced as a prelude to the recent referendums. This summarises clear benefits as providing visibility (and increased local recognition), stability and outward-looking leadership. Service improvement has been more mixed, but has also tended to be positive. The profile of mayors though has been most often white male, and succession planning has not been strong. It is quite apparent, however, that mayoralities each have their individual stories to tell.

Most recently, the Third Warwick Commission on ‘Elected Mayors and City Leadership’ published its summary report on April 16 2012. Echoing the Institute for Government (who did collaborate with the Commission), they go further in considering (relatively favourably) the case for Elected Mayors charged with economic roles to be on sensible economic footprints (i.e. ‘metro-mayors’); for Mayors as transformational change agents in places requiring major change; and for the need of Mayoral governance to sit alongside and support/enable a much wider change in community involvement in governance and civil society.

Internationally, too, English elected mayors outside London have attracted a prominence their place might not have acquired otherwise. For instance, three-term Stuart Drummond of Hartlepool has promoted and generated distinctive interest in the town. He was even a ‘World Mayor’ finalist in 2010 – finishing in tenth place (the second highest position of any European Mayor).

For those local authorities seeking to either incept the mayoral system or to refresh the one introduced in the last decade, evaluations and assessments provide fertile material and frameworks for tailoring to the specifics of individual mayoralities. This is explored further in Comments below.

Alternative (and/or complementary) city leadership developments

The promotion of mayoral governance in major city councils has occurred alongside the Coalition defining its approach to sub-national governance and local growth in general, and to ‘city-regions’ in particular.

In terms of local economic growth, government’s first initiatives involved the establishment of (now) 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) covering economic geographies literally from regional scale (e.g. the Greater Essex, Kent and East Sussex – now South East – LEP) through ‘city regions’ (e.g. Greater Manchester) and non-metropolitan sub-regions (e.g. Solent) to traditional county models.

Government has also promoted ‘city regions’ through ‘new city deals’ – economic packages to be negotiated firstly with Core Cities (and/or their LEPs), but potentially later to be extended to other cities. The first such deal was agreed with Liverpool City Council (at least partly on the basis of its decision to adopt mayoral governance), and so a further negotiation would be required to extend this to a ‘city-region’ or LEP basis. The second deal, however, was agreed with Greater Manchester on a Combined Authority (i.e. city region) basis, independent of Manchester’s decision (by referendum) to reject the mayoral model, and Salford’s to adopt it.

The impression gained, therefore, has been that those major cities that have rejected mayoral governance may achieve similar ‘deals’ to those offered to mayors by establishment of ‘Combined Authorities’ – where local authorities wish to agree discharge of strategic functions jointly – on a city region basis. Greater Manchester Combined Authority has led the way, and Leeds City Region has announced its intention to follow. Although focused on economic growth, the Combined Authority has sought decentralisation of transport, skills and other functions, and could potentially extend into other areas.

A suggestion of reconciling city region and mayoral models was given by Greg Clark, Minister for Cities, in the run-up to the referendums on government listening to suggestions for ‘metro mayors’. In the aftermath of the referendums, ‘metro mayors’ have been suggested by bodies like Centre for Cities and Institute for Government as the next possible ‘bottom-up’ development of the model.

With a different genesis government has also announced pilots for ‘whole place community budgets’, which potentially could cover broad areas of public policy similar in reach to LAAs and MAAs under the previous administration. And, there are a range of other public policy reforms (e.g. NHS, Police, Welfare) where the public might reasonably expect ‘their’ (powerful) elected mayor to have influence, which are being introduced with no particular special standing for the Mayor beyond that of a Council Leader.

Taking stock and next steps

In summary, and particularly in the light of the nine rejections of mayoral governance in the May referendums, it is difficult to discern a consistent and coherent pattern as to how government wishes mayoral governance to develop over the coming period.

The local government sector, on the other hand, is faced with:-

  • a nationally-significant footprint of areas and councils covered by mayoral systems that need to be effective
  • the potential for this footprint to be extended on a one-off basis either by public petition and referendum or by ‘own initiative’
  • a set of issues around how to ensure mayoralities work well with neighbouring Leader and Cabinet local authorities
  • Longer term question-marks over whether demands for and interest in ‘metro-mayors’ (or their non-metropolitan equivalent) have any merit.

A commentary on these challenges is outlined below.


The national policy context – ‘localism and indifference OR confusion and incoherence’

Twelve years after the election of the first London mayor, successive governments have continued to struggle with providing a clear coherent context for elected mayors at sub-national levels of local government. These struggles appear to revolve around two major issues:-

  • Firstly, does national government genuinely believe in and wish to promote mayoral governance or is it a matter for bottom-up local choice about which they are relatively indifferent? Neither Labour nor the Coalition has ever answered this question consistently. The most recent city mayoral referendums are a case in point. Government expressed a proposition that mayoral governance would be ‘good’ for major cities. They selected an arbitrary number of larger cities who would be required to have referendums – claiming (wrongly) that these were the largest twelve in population terms. There was no reason given as to why twelve was the ‘right’ number (e.g. as opposed to the eight ‘core cities’, that at least had a history of collaboration; or a much larger number of cities that would have given a wider geographical and socio-economic spread. Sunderland, for instance, is one of the twelve largest cities, but was NOT required to hold a referendum because it had rejected a mayorality in a 2001 referendum on a 10 per cent turnout!). Government then gave the electorate (and the candidates) no real steer as to the powers and resources they might have; and offered an alternative route (i.e. the Combined Authority model) for achieving the same ends. This same incoherence characterises most of the issues around mayoral governance where a national steer might be helpful in setting the context. The coalition argues this as ‘localism’ and that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’; critics may argue it as abdication of national responsibility, effectively continuing to embed the centralist character of the state.
  • Secondly, is mayoral governance about democratic renewal and increasing local accountability for (sub-national) public policy, or is it really about promoting economic growth and regeneration in major cities? Whilst much of Blair and Cameron’s enthusiasm for elected mayors initially appears to be about the former, in practice much of the argument and justification – especially in the recent referendums – has been about the latter. For existing (and the prospective Bristol) Mayors, however, this national ambiguity has huge practical implications. The electorate have a reasonable expectation that the elected mayor can assist them in, for instance, their NHS, community safety, welfare or other public policy concerns, but in reality the Mayor is in no better a formal position than their Councillors. Concurrently, Government and business may expect an economic premium from mayoralities, but, as the local authority does not comprise a functional economic area, this premium (if any) is severely constrained. This dilemma becomes even more acute in non-metropolitan areas. If Mayors were good for democratic renewal and/or for economic development, why would ambitious counties not consider them seriously as an option, and why has government never actively advocated them for non-metropolitan areas? 

Mayoral governance will continue to struggle (except in ‘special cases’) as a compelling alternative to the status quo whilst government fails to resolve these dilemmas. Following the May elections, Greg Clark – Minister for Cities and for Decentralisation – has expressed his disappointment with the referendum outcomes. However, he has re-affirmed that the existing cohort of Mayors (plus Bristol) remain significant, and raised again the prospect of ‘metro-mayors’ where they are sought.

The choices for existing and/or prospective mayoral councils

Resolving this lack of clarity nationally falls to the local government sector in general and to local authorities and their partners in specific sub-national geographies.  In building the most recent (and any future) mayoralities, and refreshing the more long-standing ones, two frameworks may be useful in defining the character and delivering strategic development of a mayorality.

The first framework, Figure One, defines the mayorality in terms of its focus – economic development or public policy more broadly; executive leadership of the local authority or as a wider influencer/shaper on a ‘whole place’ basis:-

Figure One: The characters and focus of mayoral leadership

The four conceptual characters of and focus for mayoral leadership are:-

  • The ‘whole place leader’ – probably corresponds most closely to the ‘lay’ public view of the powerful elected Mayor – someone to whom they can look to solve (almost) any of their problems. Local Authorities who seek to develop this type of mayorality need to support the Mayor with structures and processes that deliver influence over the major public policy resources and organisations that impact on their locality (i.e. akin to a whole-place community budget). The Mayor would need to be a prolific partnership builder, especially with public partners – including major leaders of key institutions in a real or virtual local leadership team. The public might also expect a strong case work capacity in the Mayor/Council offices.
  • The ‘council service deliverer’ – focuses on personal accountability for the quality of council strategy and operations. This type of mayorality may be particularly appropriate when the system is introduced in response to major council crisis. It is also the type of mayorality often suggested by Eric Pickles when he suggests Executive Mayors can dispense with the Chief Executive. These mayoralities prioritise service improvement and the Mayor needs to be an organisational leader and change agent.
  • The ‘council as economic driver’ – focuses on the Mayor ensuring the council is an economic driver, deploying resources and assets to enable growth and regeneration, business-friendly, and a major economic role player. This type of mayorality needs a strong economic development team that can operate both in the market place, with local communities, and most importantly influence the mainstream services of the council (planning and transport, but also education, housing, social services etc). The Mayor needs to ensure a continuing council focus on economy, and also be proactive in local partnership forums, the LEP etc.
  • The ‘strategic economic champion’ – probably corresponds most closely to the Cameron/Clegg view of powerful mayors and to the potential for ‘metro mayors’. The mayor builds priorities for development and regeneration across the functional economic geography and then positions and promotes the place in national and international markets. The council needs to scale up its economic capabilities either directly or indirectly (e.g. through the LEP or a bespoke specialist city development arms-length body) to support an effective mayorality.


The second framework looks at embedding and sustaining the mayorality over the longer term with reference to the types and styles of leadership of the mayor.

Figure Two: Leadership styles

The ‘strategic leadership team chair’ will build collective leadership teams both within the council (Member and Officer), and with external role players (public/private/community), and require support and resourcing from the council to sustain this. If the Mayor’s is ‘Operational Management Team Chair’ (i.e. more inward-looking on the council – for instance, in the aftermath of crisis), the focus is more on Cabinet and the Senior Management Team. As ‘micro-manager’ the mayorality is likely to be pre-occupied with case work. The ‘strategist’ mayor will be an influencer but perhaps in more supportive roles in wider forums (e.g. as a Member but not the Chair of a LEP).

These frameworks do not suggest that there are ‘pure’ mayoralities in terms of exclusive quadrants that mayors will occupy. All Mayors will need to occupy all quadrants during their mayoraility, and local authorities need to consider the structures and processes that will enable this to be done successfully. However, Mayors and mayoralities will in practice gravitate towards specific quadrants of both frameworks as personalities and circumstances dictate. This needs to be discussed openly and honestly between Mayors, their advisors and their council leadership teams.

Implicitly, the author of this briefing considers the most successful Mayoralities will be more enduring if they tend to operate towards the top right-hand quadrants. Strategic leadership and influencing implies a range of development and support challenges for both the individuals and the council. Similarly the dangers of mayoralities – including the much-publicised ‘failings’ of Doncaster – appear to have become more acute in the bottom left-hand quadrants.

Mayors and City Leadership

Given the referendum outcomes and the alternative mechanisms for city leadership promoted by government, the role of elected mayors in city leadership remains ambiguous. At LEP level, they remain, de facto, one of a number of Council Leaders with a stake in the LEP – unless all the LEP local authorities agree on an enhanced role. Similarly, with ‘new city deals’, it remains to be seen how individual agreements between government and Mayors dovetail with and complement wider ‘city region’ deals. There seems no appetite from government to prioritise ‘deals’ with LGA2000 mayoralities on a council basis. Finally, it will be interesting to see whether government convenes a Cabinet of City Mayors and on what basis.

At the same time, there is no doubt that, in practice, an elected mayor does give a ‘place’ an edge and distinctiveness with the market and with local business and communities. Ambitious cities and city regions should recognise and may exploit this in positioning themselves as a destination for inward investment – whether on a city, city-region or LEP basis.

Where next for mayoral governance?

As we approach mid-term of this parliament, the Coalition’s approach to mayoral governance has provided no national sense of clarity or purpose for the future of this system. For the local government sector, therefore, practical priorities are:-

  • Making the most of existing mayoralities – both locally and as part of the argument for increased decentralisation
  • Determining whether there is merit in pursuing a ‘metro-mayor’ experiment

These are both necessary and important undertakings. Government and the sector need to deliver on this agenda, and put in place development and support mechanisms to secure successful outcomes for them.

However, neither is ‘sufficient’ for either revitalisation of local governance and community engagement, or for delivering local economic growth across the majority of England. Whether elected mayors are part of the future for non-metropolitan areas is a ‘dog that hasn’t really barked’ in the first twelve years of elected mayors (with all due respect to places like Bedford, Mansfield, Torbay and Watford). However, alongside the two headline priorities, crucial questions for governance and economic development in non-metropolitan cities and communities may wish to include consideration of the opportunities a mayoral system may offer.

For more information about this, or any other LGiU member briefing, please contact Janet Sillett, Briefings Manager, on janet.sillett@lgiu.org