Political leadership has become a much more explicit and widespread feature of English urban governance than it was 20 years ago. It has become particularly high profile since the Labour Government came into power in 1997 and sponsored legislation (Local Government Act 2000) which required all English local authorities to replace or modify the existing committee system of decision‐making by adopting one of four prescribed options, the thrust of which was to strengthen executive governance. This article considers the legislative drivers for change against the backdrop of long‐established cultural traditions, most notably the continued dominance of the party group which, in many ways, is inimical to the exercise of individual political leadership. It is argued that the way local authorities develop new models of executive governance reflects the local political culture. In other words the ‘locality effect’ assumes considerable importance when considering new patterns of executive governance in urban England. This article explores the interplay between the changing operational and institutional context and the resilient traditions of party group behaviour. It concludes that, while over a period of time there is likely to be considerable change in the patterns of urban political leadership, the rate of progress to that end will be highly differential.