Blair's town halls: the older man need not apply

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They stood to applaud him yesterday, the serried ranks of greying, older Labour male councillors gathered at the party's annual local government conference in Scarborough - but they will shortly find out that Tony Blair has plans to take take their chairs away.

"The Labour Party in government has to have the courage to change," the Prime Minister warned them, and judging by what the Government is about to do, he means councils. Under the slogan "New Labour, New Councillors" he is calling for no less than the departure of most existing Labour representatives in city and borough authorities and their replacement by younger people. He said yesterday he wants "to boost people power" and modernise local government. He hinted that unless large numbers of Labour's older councillors go voluntarily, they will be compulsorily retired.

Starting today with the publication of a government paper on council procedures intended to make them more "user-friendly", the Prime Minister has authorised a campaign to persuade male councillors of a certain age to stand down.

Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister, is primed to tour the country telling party councillors to smarten up, rejuvenate and change their sex. More than a third of councillors are now over retirement age and fewer than 25 per cent are women.

At the conference, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced a national Labour plan for recruiting younger councillors. Project 99 will set local Labour parties targets for getting younger people and women on selection panels for local government elections. The party's regional offices are to start weeding names from candidate lists.

By way of compensation, Ms Armstrong will offer ex councillors informal positions as "mentors and guides" through the municipal labyrinth to the new younger members - if they can be recruited. In many areas, candidates for council office are in short supply. The problem is not confined to the Labour Party, either.

The consultation paper being issued today by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions will outline ways in which it hopes councils could become more attractive to younger members and to the public at large. It will recommend annual elections in all councils, with perhaps a third or a quarter of councillors stepping down each year, together with a new set of techniques for consulting the public on council decisions such as "citizens' juries". The paper will, however, stop short of endorsing proportional representation. It will be ambiguous, too, about the principle of elected mayors for every council.

Mr Prescott used his conference speech to attack the House of Lords for delaying the government Bill allowing a referendum in London on the creation of a mayor and elected assembly. But outside London, few councillors seem to want mayors. So far only a single non-London member of the Local Government Association - the national grouping of local authorities - has come out in favour of the reform.

Privately, Tony Blair told Labour councillors that they have "lost their place in the hearts and minds of local people". Fresh from his meeting with President Clinton, he will use American examples to show that local government can be a "vital part of local life".

But in his public address he sympathised with councillors for their "frustration in wanting change quicker. I feel that frustration too". Mr Blair added: "The purpose of change is not to obliterate basic values, it is actually to make them live again. Values that matter and concepts of ideals worth fighting for require a courage to make them live again."