Directly elected mayors in England: leading local government?

John Fenwick and Howard Elcock

The first directly-elected executive mayors in England took office more than a decade ago. Drawing inspiration from European and American experience, the directly elected mayor appealed to New Labour and Conservative policy-makers alike, offering an apparent solution to perceived problems of weak local leadership and bureaucratic stagnation. The heroic image of urban leaders from the world’s great cities was implicit in this depiction of the elected mayor, a new figure in English (and potentially Welsh) local government who would have decisive executive authority gained from direct popular mandate.

It didn’t work out like this. Under legislation enacted in 2000, the first local referendums largely rejected the mayoral option. In 2012 the coalition government initiated 10 further mayoral referendums in selected English cities but in only one – Bristol – was there popular assent for establishing the office of mayor. Overall, there is no evidence of widespread public support, yet the prospect of more mayors – with enhanced powers – remains firmly on the policy agenda. Why?

Drawing from a decade of research by the authors, this article considers reasons for the persistence of the mayoral experiment, its broad support across political parties and the importance of specific local factors in the few areas where mayors actually exist. It finds little evidence of public enthusiasm. It suggests that the relationship of mayoral leadership to place remains problematic. Analytically the article uses the authors’ leadership grid to link the governmental, governance and allegiance roles of mayors to the problematic nature of local leadership. The article also finds that although further legislation in 2007 – under which it became possible to establish a mayoral system through simple council resolution rather than referendum – potentially facilitated expansion of the mayoral system, this rapid expansion has not occurred. Indeed, two areas which previously adopted the office of mayor subsequently reversed their decision. Thus, in 2014, there are (excluding the London mayor, a different job with different powers) only 15 directly elected mayors in England. This is interesting and curious: not only in political terms but also in terms of local leadership and the long-standing search for an effective core executive. What is going on?

A full version of this article – Elected Mayors: Leading Locally? – is published in Local Government Studies. The article is open access until the end of February 2014.


John Fenwick is Professor of Leadership and Public Management at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University. He is author of Managing Local Government (1995), numerous articles on local governance and public policy, and co-editor of Public Management in the Postmodern Era (2010). His current research includes local leadership and the elected mayor; the third sector in local service provision; and critical approaches to management development and organisational behaviour.


Howard Elcock is Professor (emeritus) at Northumbria University. He is author of Administrative Justice (1969), Portrait of a Decision: the Council of Four and the Treaty of Versailles (1972), Local Government (three editions 1984–1994) and Political Leadership (2001). His current research includes political leadership and elected mayors; local democracy; and the ethics of government.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s