Birmingham risks wrath of government over mayors

10 Jan 02
Ministerial intervention into Britain's largest council looks inevitable after Birmingham this week strongly rejected the government's calls for a referendum for a directly elected mayor.

11 January 2002

Ratcheting up the simmering row between Westminster and the leaders of England's second city, Birmingham's councillors confirmed in a letter to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on January 9 that they would defy ministers and not hold a mayoral vote.

The six-page robust rebuttal of the government's position concludes that any ministerial intervention would be 'neither justified nor appropriate'.

However Birmingham's arguments are almost certain to fall on deaf ears within the DTLR.

The government's much vaunted mayoral policy could stand or fall on whether or not a large city outside London pursues the US-leader-style route.

And although Local Government Secretary Stephen Byers is thought to be only a lukewarm supporter of directly elected mayors, he looks set to give the go-ahead to a forced vote by using his reserve powers, possibly within the next few weeks.

Although the department would say only that 'ministers are now considering their position', sources claim that having come this far it is unlikely that the government will now back down.

And, despite their defiance, even some Birmingham councillors believe that a referendum is now a fait accompli.

In a desperate bid, Birmingham even considered the possibility of legal action to stop ministers intervening. But it was warned off going to the courts as it was certain to end in defeat.

The row hinges on the issue of consultation. Ministers believe a postal ballot carried out last September by the council was inadequate and showed majority support for mayors as the two mayoral options attracted 53% support.

However, the council says consultation was extensive, received a 31% response rate, cost the council more than £200,000 and produced backing for the leader/Cabinet model.

This option received the largest single backing with over 46% support.

'There is absolutely no doubt therefore, in the council's mind, that the response to the consultative ballot needs to be treated

with the greatest respect,' states the letter, signed by Stewart Dobson, Birmingham's acting chief executive. 'Faced with a choice between three distinct models of executive, the electors of Birmingham expressed a clear preference for the leader/Cabinet model.'

But pro-mayor think-tank the New Local Government Network said intervention would support the democratic process.

'A referendum does not amount to imposing a solution on Birmingham but merely refers the question to local people,' said Anna Randle, mayoral campaign manager at the NLGN.


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