Tory grandee Michael Heseltine has revealed a “huge battle” is going on among Coalition Government ministers over how much power to give an elected mayor of Birmingham.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine, who is currently patron of the Tory Reform Group, revealed the pitched battle in Whitehall in a public debate on the issue at the University of Birmingham.
Lord Heseltine, who has advised David Cameron and the Government on elected mayors, said there had been some major debates among the top ranks of the Conservative party.
With a referendum on an elected mayor a little over two months away the Government has still not revealed how much power a mayor of Birmingham would have.
Birmingham’s Labour leader Sir Albert Bore, a possible mayoral candidate, said: “The Government should come clean about what powers are on offer. If they are no more than the current council leader they risk losing the referendum to a no vote.”
Lord Heseltine replied: “Central Government is not enormously inclined to giving away power. There is a huge battle going on.”
He told the audience of 300 gathered in the Great Hall that almost all significant political power is centralised in Whitehall and that there is a push from some ministers to give big cities, under mayors, more independence. But this is also resisted in other departments and powers may not be handed down until after mayors are in place.
Lord Heseltine was in no doubt that big cities need more independence from Whitehall. “The idea that we have local Government in England is fiction.”
He said that council leaders, like Mike Whitby, do not have the profile or clout to take power and push cities forward.
“I was fascinated watching TV coverage of the urban riots last summer. They hardly, if at all, showed the council leaders of the cities where riots took place.”
The voters of Birmingham are being given the chance to vote on whether or not they want a Boris Johnson-style elected mayor in a referendum on May 3. If the city vote Yes then an election will be held on November 15.
No campaigners fear that a mayor could be too powerful and that the city could be saddled with a poor one or a useless celebrity mayor.