Brown to ditch Blair's pet project for elected mayors

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown yesterday made it clear that he will run the Government his own way when he takes charge by signalling that one of Tony Blair's pet projects will be shelved.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly supported the idea of elected mayors with city-wide powers over local government but Mr Brown's chief lieutenant, Ed Balls, yesterday criticised the proposal for weakening the power of existing regional development associations.

It was seen as the first clear sign of Mr Blair's waning authority since he told his party conference that he would step down within the next 12 months, and will spark fresh questions about how long the Prime Minister can continue in power.

There was more speculation about Mr Blair's departure date last night after the Labour Party announced it was scrapping the planned spring conference, where Mr Blair would have made a second keynote "farewell" speech to his party. The party intends to hold a series of smaller "seminars and consultations", some of them online.

"It is a combination of cost-cutting and Blair," said one minister. "The party is desperate to save money, but it would also have raised more questions about when Tony is going."

Mr Balls is regarded as so close to the Chancellor that he would not speak without his authority. Mr Brown's allies confirmed last night that Mr Balls was indeed reflecting the Chancellor's thinking.

In a speech on "Britishness" in 2000, Mr Blair said: "City mayors with real power have their place." But the plan was snubbed in 2001 when voters in a series of referendums in Berwick, Cheltenham and Gloucester rejected the US-style directly-elected mayors.

In May, last year, days before the general election, Mr Blair revived the plan. He said Ken Livingstone, the London Mayor, "has shown how an independent mandate can provide authority for innovative policy".

Yesterday, Mr Balls told the Manchester Chamber of Commerce that he did "not believe that is the road that many in local government will want to take".

He said that London was exceptional because of its scale and history and that the model "is not one that is easily applied across all areas of England".

Mr Balls, a Treasury minister, said that it would be "very damaging" to Burnley, Blackburn or Preston to see Greater Manchester carved out of their North West Regional Development Agency.

The forthcoming local government White Paper would aim to strengthen the cities, but not by weakening the RDAs, he added.

The former cabinet minister Lord Heseltine announced yesterday that the role of city mayors would be one of the priorities for a Conservative task force on the regeneration of the cities.