Conservative and Liberal Democrat city council leaders have been accused of using the absence of key politicians during the summer break to rule out any possibility of Birmingham opting to be governed by a directly-elected mayor.
A thinly-attended meeting of the Business Management Committee last week recommended rejecting a referendum on whether the existing system of a council leader and cabinet should be replaced by a London-style mayor.
Instead, subject to the result of public consultation, Birmingham will continue the current arrangements with one important change.
Tory council leader Mike Whitby is to be appointed for a four-year period from May 2010 and will not have to be re-elected annually by the full council.
Opposition Labour group leader Sir Albert Bore, a supporter of elected mayors, accused the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of deliberately tabling the controversial issue at a meeting when it was obvious that none of the council’s major players would be present.
Sir Albert (Lab Ladywood) said: “It seems remarkable to me that a report sanctioning a change in the way the city will be run was approved for council next month at a meeting in the middle of the holiday period. The only elected members present were the group secretaries. Not one cabinet member or the leadership, who are directly affected by the proposals contained in this report, was there. I wonder whether it was intended to slip this through under cover of darkness, knowing it will automatically be agreed at council in two weeks by the Tories and Lib Dems without an opportunity to fully examine the implications for democracy in Birmingham.”
Sir Albert criticised the tone of a written report by corporate director of governance Mirza Ahmad, which suggested Birmingham is being run well with “fiscal discipline” and there is no public appetite for an elected mayor.
Sir Albert added: “It struck me as strange that a report on the four-year leadership proposal, should reference the fiscal discipline of the incumbent leadership, in the light of the recent concern about a budget deficit of nearly £20m and the attempt to abandon the employee pay reward allowed for in the 2009-10 budget.”
Mr Ahmad claimed people were more concerned with the standard of council services and value for money than systems of governance.
He said a petition last year demanding a referendum on the mayoral issue, which attracted about 10,000 signatures, demonstrated “the public has little appetite for such matters”.
However, the committee’s decision is likely to be meaningless if the Conservatives win the next General Election. Tory leader David Cameron will order the largest English cities, including Birmingham, to hold a referendum on whether they should switch to be governed by a directly-elected mayor.