Parties clash over elected mayors

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Indy Politics
Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine clashed over proposals for an elected mayor for London at the opening of the local election campaign yesterday as the Labour leader underlined his commitment to the idea.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Heseltine - a past advocate of elected bosses for big cities - argued that directly elected mayors could not be introduced without a "root-and branch-reform of the working of local government".

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, joined the attack. Labour, he said, in its recent consultation document on London had been unable to decide "whether it wants a mayor or a new GLC [Greater London Council]. So it has decided it will have both."

But Mr Blair, in a speech in London, insisted that the idea offered "real potential to be the spur for the renewal of local democracy in this country".

"Strong civic leadership could help restore much needed civic pride in London," he said. "Imagine the potential energy an elected mayor could give to London in the new millennium. Not a ceremonial role, but elected political leadership which has as its job speaking up for the people of London and driving the renewal of the city." The potential, he added, was "equally strong for other cities in Britain".

His comments came after Mr Heseltine, who promoted the idea of elected mayors during his backbench exile in the Eighties, said the idea could not simply be stuck on as "an Elastoplast" to the existing structure.

A mayor would require the focusing of powers at present widely dispersed through a myriad of overlapping committees, he said. That in turn would require a root-and-branch reform of local government if an elected mayor was not be neutered by the existing bureaucracies. But, he added, in an article in the London Evening Standard newspaper, "I detect no public appetite whatsoever for root-and-branch reform."

Having a Minister for London and a Cabinet committee for the capital provided the "flexibility to meet the diversity of London's needs", Mr Heseltine said, arguing that it was "a mistake" to have one over-arching structure for the capital.

He also attacked Labour's proposal for the police to be placed under Labour's proposed London-wide authority - an idea which Labour said was backed by Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police.

The Conservatives' opposition to a London-wide body showed just how out of touch they were, Mr Blair argued, while the creation of elected mayors would be a genuinely decentralising policy.

"Central government would deliberately be creating powerful political voices in the cities of this country. We would be doing it both to enrich democracy and to give new direction to our cities," he said.

While he insisted Labour's proposal for London remained a consultation issue, he stressed: "I have made my views clear".