The prospect of an elected mayor for Birmingham moves a step closer on Wednesday with the unveiling of new laws making it easier to transform the way major cities are governed.
Hazel Blears, the Local Government Secretary, is to publish a White Paper outlining a raft of reforms including changing the rules governing the introduction of elected mayors. It will include allowing campaigners organising a petition in favour of a mayor to collect signatures electronically.
It follows a campaign in Birmingham earlier this year which failed to secure the 36,000 names required to trigger a ballot.
This re-awakened the Government’s interest in directly-elected mayors, which Ms Blears believes would benefit Britain’s major cities.
Under the law as it stands, local authorities are obliged to hold a referendum on having an elected mayor if a petition is signed by five per cent of residents – but names cannot be collected over the internet. This will change in the White Paper on “empowerment” to be published by Ms Blears.
Allowing electronic petitions will make it far easier to gather the signatures needed, ministers believe.
The Paper will also include changes to a rule which prevents any city rejecting an elected mayor in a referendum from holding a new ballot within 10 years. The period will be cut to four years.
Mayors will also gain more powers, taking on a share of responsibility for local policing as members of “police and crime reduction partnerships”.
Other reforms in the Paper will include:
* Allowing more council officials to take part in political activity. Senior officers are currently barred from campaigning for a political party or standing for election, but in future this restriction will apply only to the highest-ranked managers
* Placing councils under an obligation to “promote democracy”, which will include running campaigns to explain the voting system, to encourage first-time voters, and to sign people on to the electoral register
* A relaxation of rules barring councillors from using council facilities for political purposes. For example, the parties will be allowed to hold meetings in council premises
There are just 13 elected mayors in Britain, including Boris Johnson, the Tory mayor of London, and Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough.
Attempts to introduce mayors have frequently run into opposition from sitting councillors, and the prospect of a mayor for Birmingham is opposed by city council leader Mike Whitby.
They have also met with mixed reception from the public. As well as the Birmingham petition, involving The Birmingham Post’s sister paper The Birmingham Mail, voters in Bury this month rejected plans for the borough to be run by a directly elected mayor in a referendum, with 15,425 voting no, and 10,338 voting yes. The ballot was prompted by an 8,000-signature petition.
There has been widespread criticism of the mayoral system introduced in Stoke-on-Trent in 2002.
But all three major political parties back the idea in principle. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has said on a number of occasions that he believes Birmingham would benefit from an elected mayor.
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, have given more cautious backing.