Local electorates have had the right to petition for the creation of a directly-elected mayor since the passing of the Local Government Act 2000. Since the passage of the Localism Act 2011, a petition may also be presented to introduce a leader and cabinet system or committee system.

A number of referendums have been held as a result of petitions. There are also instances where a local authority has pre-empted a growing petition campaign by resolving to hold a referendum. Examples of this include the referendums held in Torbay (in 2005) and the Isle of Wight.

The minimum threshold for a valid petition is 5% of local government electors registered in the local authority’s area. Each local authority must publish its “verification number”, i.e. the number of electors which represents 5% of registered electors, each year. The formalities of a petition, e.g. the requirement for each sheet to contain the name of the local authority and the constitutional change which is being sought, are also covered in regulations.

The signatures on the petition must be collected over a maximum period of 12 months. Each signature must be dated; any signature which is over 12 months old is not counted when determining whether the verification number has been met.

Once a petition has been validated, the referendum must be held ‘no later than’ the next ‘ordinary day of election’. This is the first Thursday in May each year (irrespective of the electoral cycle in the local authority in question). If this is less than four months away, the next ordinary day of elections would be used. A local authority is free to choose to hold the referendum earlier than this if it so chooses.

The legislation is not clear on whether an electronic petition to create a mayor would be valid. Regulation 10 of the Local Authorities (Referendums) (Petitions) (England) Regulations 2011 makes references to ‘each sheet’ of the petition, but does not contain any specific provisions about electronic petitions. It is for the local authority in question to decide whether a petition meets the legal requirements for validity.

The required petition statement is set out in a schedule to the regulations. However, it is advisable for would-be petitioners to seek advice from the local authority on the petitioning process, including such matters as the precise wording to be used.