The power to create directly-elected mayors of local authorities was introduced into England and Wales by the Local Government Act 2000. Adjustments were made by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 and the Localism Act 2011. A directly elected mayor and a cabinet is one of three different ‘governance arrangements’ or ‘political management arrangements’ available to local authorities: the others are a leader and cabinet, and the ‘committee system’, where decisions are made by policy committees and approved by full council. (Guidance on the issues that local councils may wish to take into account when considering a change in governance arrangements is available from the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s 2014 paper Rethinking Governance)

Initially, the 2000 Act required local authorities with populations of over 85,000 to adopt one of three systems: a mayor and cabinet, a mayor and council manager, or a leader and cabinet. These were to replace the traditional ‘committee system’, perceived by Government to have become unwieldy and inefficient. Authorities with a population under 85,000 were permitted to retain a slimmed-down version of the committee system. Whichever system was adopted, local authorities were required to establish at least one overview and scrutiny committee to hold the executive to account (see the House of Commons briefing paper on Overview and scrutiny in local government). The system as introduced in 2000 has been adjusted since (see below).

The rationale for elected mayors – and for separate executives in local authorities more generally – was to make it clearer to councillors and public alike where the responsibility for a particular decision lay. Both the 1997-2010 Labour government, and the then Conservative opposition, favoured increasing the numbers of directly-elected mayors, although more local referendums have rejected the idea than have favoured it. The Labour Government expressed disappointment in the 2006 local government white paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities, that only 12 local authorities had by then adopted the “strongest leadership model, an elected mayor”. (DCLG, Strong and Prosperous Communities, 2006, p. 55)

The first election of a directly-elected mayor may take place separately from elections to the council, either in May or October. The second election of the mayor must take place alongside the council; the mayor’s first term may be shortened (to a minimum of 23 months) or lengthened (to a maximum of 67 months) to achieve this. (See the Local Authorities (Elected Mayors)(Elections, Terms of Office and Casual Vacancies)(England) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/336), regulations 3 and 4)

Local authority mayors do not have additional powers over and above those available in authorities using the leader and cabinet model or the committee system.

Local authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are not covered by these provisions, and have no power to introduce a directly-elected mayor. Similarly, these provisions do not apply to parish and town councils in England or community councils in Wales.