Tony Blair called for more cities to adopt directly elected mayors yesterday, as the Government prepares for the release of a White Paper on local government reform.

He met existing mayors, including Mike Wolfe, leader of Stoke-on-Trent, at a Downing Street summit.

The Government has been pushing cities such as Birmingham to consider introducing a mayor, in return for substantial extra powers to control their own affairs.

But Local Government Minister Phil Woolas recently admitted there was "no concensus" in favour of an elected mayor in any of Britain’s eight core cities.

The upcoming White Paper is expected to offer local authorities a menu of new powers, with the level of autonomy they receive dependent on the system of Government they choose to adopt.

Mr Blair told the mayors it was "incredibly important" that people could identify who was accountable locally.

He said: "People, whether they are for you or against you, they know there is a Mr London out there and that is incredibly important.

"One of the problems with the political process is that that people do feel disempowered, shut out from it. We have got to be imaginative about how we bring decision-making closer to them."

The Prime Minister suggested the initiative should go well beyond major towns and cities: "I don’t think this is just a city problem at all. Even rural communities like mine would benefit from strong, individual, civic leadership."

Mr Blair also insisted that mayors were proving popular, despite reports of campaigns in some areas to return to more traditional systems.

"I don’t know any place that has got a mayor that is considering, or wants to, do away with it. Some people in the system may, but put it to the people, and they are not," he said.

West Midland Authorities are hoping to create a body called Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country City Region. But instead of a mayor, the eight councils would create an executive board including the leaders of the eight councils along with the chairmen of three major quangos and a representative of the business community.

The Government has urged councils to make themselves more accountable to local people in return for increased powers, but it has always insisted it will never force any city region to create a mayor.

The idea has already been vetoed by councillors in the eight "core cities" of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

However, the White Paper will make it clear that cities or regions which adopt other systems of government will not receive all the new powers they have been demanding over issues such as housing, transport and economic development.

Yesterday's meeting was set up by the New Local Government Network think tank.

Chris Leslie, a Government minister until losing his seat at the last election, is director of the NLGN and took part in the debate.

Speaking afterwards, he said: "We are delighted that the Prime Minister was able to host our Mayoral Forum and discuss the real difference that directly-elected mayors are making to their communities.

"Mayors are offering a fresh approach to local democracy, stronger positive leadership and greater accountability.

"The local government White Paper offers an ideal opportunity to build upon the success of mayors so far and we look forward to seeing the proposals in full."

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