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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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