Cities stall over elected mayors

3 May 01
Prime Minister Tony Blair's vision of installing directly elected mayors in English cities is looking increasingly shaky as previously pacesetting authorities apply the brakes.

04 May 2001

Birmingham City Council, once at the forefront of the mayoral push, is already risking the wrath of ministers by planning to hold a consultative referendum three months after the deadline for submitting constitutional changes has passed.

Albert Bore, Birmingham's leader and aspiring mayoral candidate, has been defeated in his attempts to hold a single referendum on the issue by his own backbench councillors.

Instead the Labour group will now spend more than £250,000 on a non-binding referendum in September asking voters whether they want a mayor with a Cabinet, a leader and a Cabinet or a mayor with a council manager.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has set a June deadline for political changes, although councils facing elections or foot and mouth have until September.

But officials seem to have been left in the dark over the city's intentions. 'We understand Birmingham will finish their consultation shortly,' a DETR spokesman told Public Finance. 'We are not concerned that they will miss the June deadline. We have not received any contrary information.'

Officers at the council have already warned that a September consultation would contravene the government's guidance. But backbench councillors are determined that a mayor will not be forced on them. Birmingham will have to spend £300,000 on a further referendum if residents choose the mayoral option.

Liverpool City Council also appears to be backtracking, having previously been a principal advocate of the mayoral option. Its leader and prospective mayor, Mike Storey, has been defeated in his campaign to force the issue. Two years after the government's proposals were published, the council has only just completed a month of consultations, using a citizens' panel and questionnaire.

The London Borough of Islington will issue its consultative referendum on May 8. It will also hold another referendum if its residents plump for a mayor.

John Williams of the New Local Government Network, a left-leaning think-tank, said: 'The role of councils should be to encourage rather than frustrate public participation in this debate. The spirit of the guidance is clear – the people should decide through a binding referendum. That is the only way to ensure a fair, open and balanced debate.'


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