England's 12 largest cities would be given the chance to elect their own equivalent of Boris Johnson under Tory plans to introduce more directly elected mayors.
Under the plans, voters in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol would be among those given a guaranteed referendum on handing authority to a powerful city supremo modelled on the Mayor of London. Bradford, Wakefield, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne will also be able to vote to choose a mayoral system. Voters will also be given the power to trigger a referendum on any local policy.
The Tories plan to launch a "big bang" series of simultaneous referendums in all 12 cities in order to build national momentum for the change to directly elected mayors. If the exercise is successful, other cities will be polled on moving to a mayoral system.
Although the take-up of mayors has been patchy, the Conservatives argue that handing local authorities to a single public figure can galvanise leadership and boost interest in local affairs.
There are currently 12 elected mayors in towns and cities across England, but many of the biggest cities have fought shy of the idea, with councils preferring to retain a cabinet system of local government.
Party strategists point to Mr Johnson's success in becoming the first British elected politician to have a personal mandate of more than 1 million votes.
Under the plans, to be unveiled by David Cameron today, the current network of mayors would be dramatically expanded to cover the country's major centres of population.
Conservatives argue that the current system makes it too easy for vested interests to block the move towards a mayoral system. At present local authorities have the power to propose a move to a mayoral system, while voters can only trigger a ballot on change if 5 per cent of residents sign a petition calling for change.
A policy document to be launched today says: "In our biggest cities there is a strong case for new powers being placed in the hands of a single accountable individual, an elected mayor who can provide the city with strong leadership.
"Individual leadership of these councils can benefit local citizens by improving the clarity of municipal decision-making and enhancing the prestige of their city."
Grant Shapps, the Tories' housing spokesman, said: "Boris has been a big hit since coming to power. Lots of people underestimated him, but he has proved to be a decisive mayor and already taken action that has proved popular in the capital. Local people should be given a greater say in appointing those who make the decisions which have an impact on how life works locally and directly elected mayors are a good way of doing that."
The party policy paper, called Control Shift, will also reform the laws on local referendums to allow voters to trigger a ballot if 5 per cent of residents sign a petition. At present local councils can choose to hold a ballot on any issue, but there is no way of residents forcing a poll.
Mr Cameron will also propose scrapping the Government's new Infrastructure Planning Commission which was established last year to oversee planning decisions on major projects such as airports and power stations.
Mr Shapps said: "We believe we can speed up the planning system without creating another expensive quango that does not have proper democratic accountability."
Mayoral hits and misses
Mayoral elections in the capital have caught its voters' imagination, helped by the charisma of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Turnout in each of the contests to date has increased, reaching 45 per cent last year. The Mayor of London handles a budget of £3bn.
It was widely seen as a joke when Hartlepool United's mascot, H'Angus the monkey – aka Stuart Drummond – campaigned in 2002 on a platform of free bananas for schoolchildren. But he won, was re-elected on a landslide four years later and is due to stand again for a third term.
Martin Winter, who is in his second term as Mayor of the South Yorkshire town, last year lost a vote of confidence as police investigated alleged corruption at the council. The former rugby league professional, who is governing as an independent, refused to stand down and said he will stand again.
The city was one of the first to choose a directly elected mayor, with theindependent Mike Wolfe narrowly winning the post in 2002. But it soon tired of the experiment and its residents voted last year to abolish the post and return to a system of council leader and cabinet.