Government set to impose referendum on Birmingham

24 Jan 02
Birmingham looks likely to face a referendum on a directly elected mayor in the autumn as ministers prepare to flex their political muscle against England's second city and force a vote.

25 January 2002

Although the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions said this week it had yet to make a final decision on intervention, ministers are thought to be preparing an imminent announcement confirming a referendum, possibly within two weeks.

They are said to favour a vote after May's local elections. Ministers fear their decision to intervene might be unpopular and could harm the local Labour party.

If Birmingham's residents eventually back the idea of a directly elected mayor, the successful candidate, who would be England's most high-profile regional politician, could be in office by May 2003.

Despite Birmingham's bitter opposition to the idea of a mayor – around 90% of councillors reject the idea – the council concedes it is a matter of when, rather than if, ministers use their reserve powers to force a referendum.

'Our feeling is that intervention will happen,' said Tony Smith, policy development officer at Birmingham.

Earlier this month the DTLR received written proof of Birmingham's objections when the city rejected government claims that it had failed to consult properly on the issue. Birmingham believes a postal ballot held last September showed the public supported the leader/Cabinet model.

'The council is adamant that it got it right first time and there doesn't need to be government intervention,' said Smith.

But the government believes the ballot showed there was enough support for the mayoral option, hence the need for a referendum.

Intervention in Birmingham could pave the way for similar moves elsewhere. Bradford and Thurrock councils look likely to be the next.

Although consultation has previously taken place in both authorities, ministers again believe that there is enough evidence to suggest popular support for a referendum.

Last summer's rioting in the West Yorkshire city, though, could complicate the situation. Ministers are anxious not to be seen to be too heavy-handed in Bradford and are trying to secure support across the city before making a decision.

Intervention foreshadows a busy time for the issue of directly elected mayors. A referendum takes place in Plymouth on January 24 and West Devon, Shepway and the London Boroughs of Newham and Southwark follow a week later. Bedford faces a referendum on February 21 and Stoke may vote in the spring.


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