Aldermen seek to head off calls for change in the City

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Any change to archaic and undemocratic local government practices in the City of London has been ruled out on the grounds that it would spark widespread demand among voters for radical reform, according to a leaked ministerial letter.

The letter warns that "any move to fine tune these [unique arrangements] at the margin would undoubtedly lead to calls from our opponents, and indeed many of our supporters, to sweep these away and impose universal suffrage".

The letter from Robert Jones, an Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, was sent in reply to a request by the Tory MP Edward Leigh for a meeting to discuss widening the franchise in the City. Mr Leigh requested the meeting after the Court of Aldermen, part of the Corporation of London - the local authority which governs the Square Mile - vetoed the appointment of his friend and business partner, Malcolm Matson. The aldermen refused to say why.

Last week, Mr Matson won a High Court appeal which forces the the aldermen to give reasons. They have three weeks to decide whether to appeal to the House of Lords. But debate about practices in the corporation - which encompasses the Court of Alderman and the120-strong Court of Common Council and is the only local authority in Britain to retain the business vote - has spread beyond Mr Matson's case and exposed a range of questionable practices.

Yesterday, Dennis Delderfield, a member of the Common Council, said: "Mr Matson's sin was to use two dirty words - reform and democracy - in the election. The aldermen believe he wants to rock the boat. It's a travesty. It's like the House of Lords trying to veto an MP elected by the people."

Mr Delderfield is launching a petition among City residents and businesses to force the Government to introduce reforms. While the position of the City - where the resident population of 4,000 swells daily to 300,000 with the influx of workers - is unique, present arrangements are unfair, he says.

Like other critics, he claims the Court of Aldermen - which has just one female member - is a self-perpetuating club guaranteeing privilege for the already privileged. Aldermen tend to beget aldermen.

Once elected, aldermen remain in office for life. Each has a spell as Lord Mayor and a knighthood is guaranteed. While enjoying the pomp and ceremony of State banquets, the aldermen need never trouble the electorate - as Common Councilmen must - for a renewed mandate. But they enjoy the same voting rights.

Mr Matson complains that the current franchise excludes limited companies and the majority of big businesses and banks. Mr Leigh wants the Government to extend the franchise to all who work and live in the City. That, argues Mr Delderfield, would breathe new life into an unfair system.

On Monday, Mr Delderfield protested at the unopposed election to alderman of Richard Agutter, head of mergers and acquisitions of the accountants KPMG. Mr Agutter was the only candidate and partners in his firm provided two-thirds of the electorate. "I said the whole election process was becoming incestuous," said Mr Delderfield. "The election was even held in KPMG's offices."

Calls for reform are supported by Edwina Colven, the only woman to rise to the top of the Court of Common Council and the first to be elected to the Court of Aldermen. The court vetoed her appointment twice in the 1970s despite two successful elections. She never took up her post. "A lot of us in Common Council would like change but we are powerless," she says, adding that reform of the aldermen's veto and an extension of franchise would require an Act of Parliament.

Sir Alexander Graham, alderman and former Lord Mayor of London, seemed exasperated that the Court of Aldermen was being viewed as a bastion of privilege. "If there are sons coming in whose fathers were aldermen they probably got their taste and interest early," he explained.

He said the aim of the Court of Aldermen was to select the "right man" to be Lord Mayor. "If a chap is turned down it is no reflection on his character or abilities. He just doesn't have what is necessary for the role. This isn't a closed shop or an old boys' network."