Tower Hamlets governance model referendum

On Thursday 6 May 2021, Tower Hamlets voters are being asked to choose how they think the borough should be governed in the future following a decision made by councillors at the full council meeting on Wednesday 18 November. 

This referendum will ask whether the council’s Executive should be changed from a Mayor and Cabinet Executive to a Leader and Cabinet Executive. 

The referendum takes place on Thursday 6 May 2021, the same day as the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Mayor of London elections, as well as a neighbourhood planning referendum on the Isle of Dogs.  

Why is this referendum being held? 

Tower Hamlets has operated a Mayor and Cabinet ‘model of governance’ since May 2010.

As the current model was established through a referendum, it can only be changed through another referendum.

A further change of this kind can only take place at least 10 years after the date of the first referendum. 

As the moratorium has now expired, council determined it was the right time to see if local electors would like to retain the Mayor/Cabinet model or return to the Leader and Cabinet model the council operated from 2000 to 2010. 

What options will be available at the referendum? 

The law states that councils can only offer two options in the referendum (one of which must be the existing model) and council determined that the alternative option offered should be the Leader and Cabinet model.  

Main features/differences between the Mayor/Cabinet and Leader/Cabinet models 

Both models are set up in a similar way and are ‘Executive’ forms of governance.  

This refers to the model of local government whereby meetings of the full Council agree the budget and council tax whilst an Executive has oversight of most day to day policy and decision making.

The Executive meet together as the ‘Cabinet’ but may also establish sub-committees on specific subjects or take decisions individually if such delegations have been established. 

Council will then appoint Committees to be responsible for certain services including planning, licensing, scrutiny, audit and standards which, by law, cannot be the responsibility of the Executive. 

The main difference between the two versions is that the Mayor is chosen directly by all local electors whilst a Leader would be selected from amongst the Councillors.

This also means that a Leader could be replaced by a vote at council should they no longer have the support of Councillors. A Mayor can normally only be replaced by local electors at the next local elections.   

The other standard Executive arrangements would not change except that the Leader replaces the Mayor, such as: 

  1. The Leader would select a Cabinet of between two and nine Members
  2. The Leader would present a budget to the council
  3. The Leader and Cabinet will have oversight of the majority of the council’s day to day services
  4. The council will appoint Committees to be responsible for certain services including planning, licensing scrutiny, audit and standards. 

Further detailed decision-making arrangements can be set up under either model; such as having individual cabinet member decision making, and these arrangements are agreed by the administration once they are in place.

There are no proposals to change other arrangements such as to introduce individual Cabinet Member decision-making but these could be amended at anytime by an incoming administration. 

What happens if the referendum is passed? 

If local electors decide to agree a change then the council will continue to operate under the Mayor/Cabinet model until the local elections in May 2022 at which point the council will revert to the Leader/Cabinet model. 

A report will be presented to the first council meeting following the referendum setting out the proposed transition arrangements.  

If passed the result of the referendum is binding. 

What happens if the referendum is not passed? 

If the referendum does not agree to a change then the May 2022 local elections will be run on the current Elected Mayor and Cabinet model.  

If not passed the result of the referendum is binding.  

The referendum details 

The poll for the Referendum will be held on Thursday 6 May 2021 between the hours of 7am and 10pm.

Anyone eligible to vote in local elections (such as the Greater London Authority elections taking place at the same time) will be entitled to vote in the referendum. 

The question to be asked at the poll will be:

How would you like Tower Hamlets Borough Council to be run?  

  • By a mayor who is elected by voters. This is how the council is run now.  


  • By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors. This would be a change from how the council is run now. 

The referendum will be conducted in accordance with the rules adopted for local elections and will take place at the same time as the Greater London Authority elections.

It is also taking place at the same time as a referendum is to be held on the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Plan within a specified area of the Isle of Dogs.

Details of the NPR can be found on the Isle of Dogs referendum page.

The referendum expenses limit for campaign organisers promoting a particular outcome is the aggregate of £2,362 plus the amount found by multiplying by 5.9 pence the number of entries in the relevant local government electoral register in effect on the day on which the referendum period begins. 

Background information

The following are the proposals (i.e the report to council and the minutes of the meeting).