What is happening with England’s mayoral elections?

Some ballot boxes. Image: Getty.

On Thursday 7 May, many of England’s biggest cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester – were due to hold mayoral elections. Liverpool, just to show off, was planning to hold two. 

That’s not happening now. On Thursday 12 March the UK's Electoral Commission recommended that the government delay the elections, to protect voters, campaigners and election officials from the growing Covid-19 pandemic. The following day, the government agreed. 

That decision, which was taken even before the UK went into lockdown, won’t just affect the mayoral elections, but a huge number of other local elections across England – mostly, though not exclusively, in urban areas.

So – what happens now? Here are some of the big questions, along with, best we can tell, the answers.

What was up for election?

The highest profile election originally scheduled for May was London’s sixth mayoral election. Candidates were set to include Tory Shaun Bailey; the Liberal Democrat Siobhan Benita; Green party co-leader Sian Berry; and the independent former Tory MP Rory Stewart. But Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan has consistently maintained a strong poll lead, and most observers expected him to win a second term handily. 

Four other metro mayors – that is, mayors who run a combined authority, rather than leading a single council – were also facing re-election. The relevant authorities, and their incumbents, are:

  • Greater Manchester – Andy Burnham (Labour); 

  • West Midlands – Andy Street (Tory);

  • Liverpool City Region – Steve Rotheram (Labour); 

  • Tees Valley – Ben Houchen (Tory).

All of these were up for a second term after just three years, rather than the normal four, so as to align the relatively new posts with other local elections in the hope of improving turnout. (The two other metro mayors first elected in 2017 – in the West of England, and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – were not due to face re-election until next year.) 

One odd side effect of this is that it meant that the Liverpool City Region was to elect its metro mayor (who runs infrastructure and economic policy across six boroughs) on the same day as Liverpool City Council was to elect its own mayor (who runs the council of just one, albeit the biggest and most central). To add to the absurdity, neither post is in any way competitive: both Rotheram and incumbent Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, who has held the job for Labour since 2012, were almost certain to be re-elected. 

Several other directly elected mayors – in Bristol, Doncaster, North Tyneside and Salford – were also up for election in May. And so were a vast number of council seats, across the former metropolitan counties of the Midlands and the north, and in a sprinking of councils outside them, too. Here’s a map:

The councils up for election. Image: Maswimelleu/Wikimedia Commons. 

When will those elections be held now? 

Assuming that the pandemic has abated enough for elections to take place – probable but far from certain – the expectation is they’ll take place instead on Thursday 6 May 2021. 

That’ll make it a bumper day for local democracy in Britain, because council elections covering huge swathes of England, Scotland and Wales were already due to take place. Elections for the metro mayoralties in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, the West of England, and a new one in West Yorkshire – signed off by national government on 12 March – are also up the same day.

Does this have a knock-on effect on the timetable of other elections?

Right now, nobody actually seems to know. The elections originally scheduled for 2021 are generally expected to take place as planned. But whether the ones delayed from 2020 to 2021 will be repeated in 2024, or pushed permanently to a new cycle which sees them repeat in 2025, is a matter on which there is currently no consensus. The government, busy as it is dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, has either not given the matter much thought, or not made its position clear if it has. 

So can parties change their candidates?

Candidacies will not be formally registered with the election authorities until a few weeks before the elections. That means there’s no legal bar to candidates dropping out (nor, for that matter, being pushed aside by parties who think they’ve found someone better).

Are there any other consequences?

Yes, it turns out that if you delay an entire election cycle because of a global pandemic, there are in fact some other consequences.

A relatively minor one is that Liverpool, which had always faced the absurdity of two simultaneous mayoral elections, will be joined in this by Bristol. Mavin Rees, Labour’s directly elected mayor of the city council, was due to face re-election this year. Tim Bowles, the Tory metro mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (basically, Bristol, Bath and some of their suburbs), was to face the voters next year. Now those elections will both happen on the same day.

Dr Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit think tank, says that although “the delay was absolutely the right decision,” it does create a number of other problems. Some councillors who had intended to step down next month will now find they’re expected to stay in post, he notes. That may be fine for many, but others will have been intending to move, or to take up new jobs. The law of large numbers means that not all will change their plans: some will still step down. “So what happens to that seat? Do you leave it vacant? Do you co-opt someone? We just don’t know,” says Carr-West.

He also argues that a “democratic deficit” will be created where areas end up governed by particular people for longer than they expected. “If we believe in local democracy, if we believe that it matters that decisions are made by people who are elected to lead local places, then it matters that these terms have been extended by a year,” he says.

What about the local government reform agenda?

The pandemic as a whole, if not the delayed elections, pose a bigger problem of local government in England. The sector has been waiting on a number of major reforms – to funding, social care, its powers, even possibly a radical, twice-a-century reorganisation of council boundaries. These have been repeatedly delayed, thanks to Brexit and a series of national elections. But with Brexit finally happening and the governing party having won a decent majority at Westminster for the first time in a decade, many in the sector hoped things would move on at last. 

The problems those reforms were intended to solve, and which have already seen one county council, Northamptonshire, go bust, have not gone away. But with the entire planet in crisis, it doesn’t seem likely national government will be addressing them any time soon.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.