Birmingham must accept an elected mayor if it is to become "a Milan of the Midlands" and join the top rank of European cities, a Government Minister has suggested.
Ruth Kelly admitted central government had been too "London-centric" while cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester had been held back.
But in a speech, the Cabinet Minister in charge of local government dropped heavy hints that cities must embrace elected mayors if they wanted to make their own decisions on issues such as housing, transport and planning.
The comments of the former Education Secretary put her at odds with council leaders in the West Midlands, who are firmly opposed to a mayor.
Eight local councils - Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Telford - have drawn up plans for a city region to make policy for the area.
They want to make decisions which are currently taken in Whitehall, or by unelected regional quangos.
But instead of a mayor, they say the city region should be led by an executive made up of existing council leaders.
Ms Kelly was appointed to the post of Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in May, taking over from John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and David Miliband, the former Local Government Minister.
Mr Miliband was a supporter of elected mayors, and claimed earlier this year that Birmingham lacked "strong leadership" under the present system.
Ms Kelly's speech to the Core Cities Summit in Bristol yesterday was her first major statement on the issue.
She said: "Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds have made steady progress since the 1980s but have much more to do. The only English city to be "a leader in its class" was London, she said - and this was partly because it had a mayor.
"We need to learn the right lessons of recent experience, not least from London.
"It seems to me that this shows that devolution can work. Londoners have seen improvements - whether it be the congestion charge, better buses, neighbourhood policing or even the successful Olympic bid - that have resulted from more local power.
"Strong leadership is vital to this success. Few doubt that these successes depended in no small part on the mayor."
The Government was considering proposals to give city regions more control over skills policies, housing, planning, regeneration and transport, she said.
"I have no fixed blueprint here but I'm absolutely clear that if I'm to make the case in Whitehall for more devolution then I need to be able to explain in clear and simple terms to whom we will be devolving and how this will make sense to the citizen in the street."
Ms Kelly added: "We all know that London is a huge asset to this country - we must never forget that. But for too long in this country we have been too London-centric.
"I think we must aspire to having a number of cities that are genuine global leaders as well as being engines of growth in their region - a Barcelona of the North, a Milan of the Midlands and a Seattle of the West and powerful cities in other parts of the country."