This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (06.05.20).

Thursday 7 May 2020 should have been local election day in England and Wales. Parliament passed emergency legislation to delay the elections because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  

This Insight gives answers to some FAQs on the postponed elections. 

Which elections are affected?  

The Coronavirus Act 2020 postponed the elections for:  

  • 40 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) in England and Wales; 
  • London Mayor and members of the Greater London Authority (GLA); 
  • Councillors in 118 English councils; 
  • Local authority mayors in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford; 
  • 4 combined authority mayors (Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley, and West Midlands); and 
  • Parish council elections in some parts of England. 

Some local referendums were also due to be held. For example there was meant to be a council tax referendum in Warwick (which has now been cancelled). 

When will they be held instead? 

These elections will now take place on 6 May 2021. This date is set by the Coronavirus Act.  

What happens to those currently serving in these seats/posts? 

The PCCs, councillors, mayors and GLA members affected by the delay would normally be coming to the end of their four-year terms. Instead they will continue in post for an extra 12 months. 

When the elections for these seats are held next year, the winning candidates will serve three years instead of the normal four years. This will allow those elections to revert to their original four-year cycle. 

The four ‘metro mayors’ for Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley, and West Midlands were first elected in 2017. They would have been coming to the end of their first term of three years. 

The winning candidates in 2020 were meant to serve four years with subsequent elections every four years. Instead the winning candidate in 2021 will serve a three-year term with elections every four years from 2024. 

What about the areas where local government has been reorganised? 

In Buckinghamshire the existing county and district councils were abolished on 1 April 2020. All the councillors from the former districts and the county became councillors of the new unitary authority of Buckinghamshire.  

Councillors will continue to serve until May 2021, when all seats will become vacant. All councillors elected in May 2021 then will serve four year terms and whole council elections will then be held every four years from 2025

In Northamptonshire, councillors were due to be elected to two new shadow unitary authorities. They will take over the running of the county in April 2021. These councillors will now be elected in May 2021 and replace all existing councillors. Those elected in 2021 will serve four-year terms and, like Buckinghamshire, will serve four years before whole council elections occur every year from 2025.  

What about the local elections already scheduled for 2021? 

Local elections in England are already due to take place on 6 May 2021. They will be for all seats on 24 county councils, six unitary county councils, Doncaster Council and the Isles of Scilly. The councillors elected for these seats will be elected for their normal four-year term. 

Voters may be voting in two or more elections in May 2021 as a result of combining this year’s delayed polls with those already scheduled next year. In Cambridge and Liverpool voters will have four different elections on the same day.  

Holding several elections on the same day is cost-effective and convenient. On the other hand, holding several elections on the same day has the potential to confuse voters with the number of ballot papers. This is especially true when there are different voting systems on different ballot papers.  

General elections are also scheduled to take place for the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru on 6 May 2021. In Wales, the current rules prevent a PCC election from being combined with a general election for the Senedd Cymru. Combining polls administratively allows voters to vote in both elections in the same polling station at the same time.

Polls that cannot be combined but that are held on the same day may cause confusion for voters and may involve voters being asked to vote in two separate polling stations. The Welsh and Westminster governments will need to work with returning officers to reach a solution. 

What about by-elections? 

By-elections for most local elections and mayoral elections must normally take place within 35 days of the vacancy arising. Parliament has approved regulations to delay these too. These will also now take place on 6 May 2021.  

The Government has said it will keep these arrangements under review. If the pandemic restrictions can be eased it may be possible to hold elections earlier. This could mean that pending by-elections might be allowed before 6 May 2021. Rallings and Thrasher, the elections experts, recorded 224 local council by-elections across the UK in the last 12 months. 

What about other elections? 

The next scheduled UK general election is currently May 2024, although the current Government has committed to abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. There are currently no by-elections due for seats in the House of Commons.  

There is no set time limit for by-elections to the House of Commons to be held. If a seat becomes vacant, it will be for the party that previously held the seat to decide when to hold the by-election. 

The Coronavirus Act makes no changes to the dates of scheduled elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament due on 6 May 2021. The regulation of these elections is devolved and it will be for the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru to approve any changes to the dates if required. 

The Coronavirus Act does, however, allow for by-elections for constituency seats in the Scottish Parliament or the Senedd Cymru to be delayed. The law normally says constituency by-elections must be called within 3 months of the vacancy arising. The Coronavirus Act allows the presiding officers in each Parliament to delay any constituency by-elections arising.  

Local council by-elections arising in Scotland and Wales will also be delayed.  

Elections in Northern Ireland are an excepted matter, which means they remain the responsibility of ministers in the UK Government. The next scheduled elections in Northern Ireland are likely to be the Assembly elections in May 2022 and local elections in May 2023. 

Further reading

Coronavirus Act: ElectionsHouse of Commons Library 

Photo by Russss / CC0

About the author: Neil Johnston is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in elections.