Birmingham needs a mayor to help shift power away from London and to the region – and the new system should be introduced without a referendum, according to senior Conservative peer Lord Heseltine.
The former Deputy Prime Minister was speaking to the Birmingham Post after George Osborne, the Chancellor, revealed the Government wanted once again to try to convince major cities to create mayors.
It followed referendums in 2012 when residents in both Coventry and Birmingham voted against creating a mayor. Elsewhere Bristol voted for a mayor and in Liverpool, which had been due to hold a referendum, the city council decided to introduce the system without a public vote.
Lord Heseltine was the driving force behind the push, having convinced David Cameron that mayors could help revitalise England’s great cities.
This week’s announcement saw the Chancellor hinting that this time the proposal would be different, and instead of calling for city mayors the Government would encourage the creation of conurbation or city region mayors to govern across a range of local authorities.
It follows the creation of combined authorities this year in the North East, West Yorkshire and Sheffield and Liverpool and the surrounding area. Greater Manchester has had a combined authority since 2011.
West Midlands councils have indicated they would be willing to consider something similar. Councillor Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton City Council, told a Commons inquiry in March: “I think that our aspirations would lead us down that particular route.”
Lord Heseltine said that he believed no referendum was needed in order to introduce mayors – and that they should have been introduced without referendums in 2012.
He said: “My position has always been the same. I wouldn’t have had referendums. I would have done it.
“But that’s my personal view. The Government decided to go the referenda route.”
Opponents of a mayor will argue that the Government should simply accept the results of the 2012 referendums, but Lord Heseltine disagreed.
“The truth is a tiny fraction of most cities voted against it. This is not a subject on which the public feel moved. They don’t feel moved by local government, they don’t vote in local elections.
“So we have a democratic deficit. In my view a reason for this is that so many decisions are imposed by London that local democracy is not seen to be a determinant in many things.
“I hope that the direction in which the Government is going will change the public’s perception of the degree of power they can exercise.
“I think that part of that process is moving to directly-elected mayors.”
He added: “We have now got them in London. It would be unthinkable to take away the mayoralty of London. People would think you were mad.
“We now have mayors in three great cities – Bristol, Liverpool and Leicester. I think it is widely seen there that they are successful and innovative and giving the sort of leadership that those of us who believe in the system thought they would.”
And he endorsed the idea of a conurbation or city region mayor – saying he wanted to propose something similar in 2012, but believed the idea would encounter resistance from council leaders.
“I look back myself and wonder whether I got the judgement wrong in saying go for borough mayors, because there was talk of going for conurbation mayors when I was recommending policy to David Cameron.
“My own judgment at the time was that if we’d gone for conurbation mayors, the local borough leaders would have been deeply opposed. And so I recommended borough mayors.”
In his speech in Manchester, Mr Osborne said: “I think it’s great to see how local authorities here are getting much better at working together.
“Councils in this city and elsewhere have been coming together in combined authorities to solve issues that cut across their borders and jointly promote their cities.
“That’s vital. Otherwise we can’t make the most of our cities and the towns in between.”
The Chancellor said: “So today I am putting on the table and starting the conversation about serious devolution of powers and budgets for any city that wants to move to a new model of city government – and have an elected mayor.”
What exactly happens next is unclear. Treasury officials said the Chancellor’s aim was to start a conversation about how cities should be governed.
But one question which is bound to arise is whether the Government wants to hold a second set of referendums – although these would not be needed if local councils follow Liverpool’s example and decide to create a mayor through a vote of councillors.
Sources within Birmingham City Council believe the authority and its neighbours might be persuaded to do this, but only once a combined authority is up and running successfully.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the city council, confirmed his long-standing support for the idea of introducing a mayor, but pointed out that a referendum had only recently rejected the idea.
He said: “The Government said it would legislate to enable city region mayors when it responded to the Heseltine review some time ago.
“I have always been a supporter of the idea of directly elected mayors, but the problem we faced two years ago was that no new powers were being offered to go with the post at city level, so the public voting in a referendum were not convinced.
“There is a strong case for adding an elected mayor to the combined authority arrangements now being put in place around the country – as long as we get the powers and resources to do the job that are being promised.
“However it is only two years since Birmingham voted quite strongly against an elected mayor so in the West Midlands case we need to walk before we run, build an effective city region and win the argument over the years ahead.”
On July 1, Labour peer Lord Adonis will publish the findings of his Growth Review, commissioned by Labour leader Ed Miliband, which is expected to include plans to devolve more funding to combined authorities.
And on July 7, Lord Heseltine and Greg Clark, the Cities Minister, are due to be in Birmingham to announce the results of bids for the Local Growth Fund, a Government fund providing £2 billion a year for economic development to regions which have bid for a share.