Politics: Blair pushes for elected mayors

Colin Brown
Saturday 24 January 1998 00:02 GMT

Directly elected mayors could become powerful figures in town halls across the country, in spite of misgivings by councillors. Colin Brown says Tony Blair is backing the idea of elected local cabinets.

Tony Blair wants to see directly elected mayors in the main town and cities of Britain as a means of reviving interest in local government, and reasserting local powers over local services.

Whitehall sources last night denied reports that the Government was considering compelling reluctant councils to join the Blair revolution for local government by forcing them to have elected mayors. But it is clearly a stick that is being kept in reserve.

"The emphasis is on a bottom-up approach to local government, not a top- down move. There are no plans at present to compel councillors to innovate in this area and ministers consider it unlikely they will need to do so," said the source.

The drive to introduce directly elected mayors is part of the reforms to local government that will be outlined in a consultation paper in the next few weeks.

The Independent reported exclusively before Christmas that the local government minister, Hilary Armstrong, was promoting the idea of elected mayors with changes to the voting system, possibly allowing voting on Sundays and in shopping centres or supermarkets to widen the appeal of local government democracy.

The plans coincide with a Bill in the House of Lords, which will give councils the power to experiment with elected mayors. The Bill has been introduced with the Government's backing by Lord Hunt of Tamworth, the cabinet secretary throughout the years of the last Labour government, from Heath to Thatcher.

Lord Hunt's Bill is expected to be given a fair wind in the Commons by the Government but the Tories are concerned about the lack of accountability for directly elected mayors with appointed cabinets. There could be as much resistance from Tories in the country as die-hard Labour councillors determined to hold on to their powers.

Few councillors may be willing to give up powers to directly elected mayors, and Mr Blair may have to resort at a later stage to compulsion. All large towns will be expected to follow the lead taken in London with the elected mayor for the capital.

For the time being, the Prime Minister is keen to keep local government in support of his proposed reforms. Some will be disappointed at the Government's decision not to make radical changes to the business rate, which will continue to be controlled largely at national level, with the introduction of some scope for local variation.

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