Birmingham will not bow to Government pressure by holding a referendum on the issue of a directly elected mayor, city council leader Mike Whitby insisted last night.

Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) claimed there was very little public support for the idea and it would be a waste of money to ballot electors.

He was speaking after Local Government Minister Phil Woolas said he was not convinced that civic leadership in Birmingham was strong enough and that the council should reconsider its opposition to elected mayors.

Coun Whitby said the only way Birmingham might get a directly elected mayor would be through the raising of a petition.

Under existing legislation, the council is obliged to hold a referendum on the issue if at least 35,000 Birmingham electors sign a petition demanding a ballot.

"If there is a real desire for this, then people know what they have to do," he added.

Coun Whitby led muted reaction to yesterday's Local Government White Paper, which set out three options for the leadership of local councils, including directly elected mayors. The document also detailed Government thinking on devolving power to local authorities.

Coun Whitby said: "The White Paper was a missed opportunity to boost local economies, improve infrastructure and provide better services for local people. These are the real concerns that city leaders of all political parties have been expressing to the Government for the last two years.

"After all the debate and hype, it is clear that the White Paper is more about musical chairs than the devolution of real power from Whitehall.

"It focuses on sterile governance issues and simply changes council’s leadership arrangements, without devolving more power from London.

"Sadly, this is a massive missed opportunity – what people really care about is economic prosperity and improved services – and there is little mention of that."

Sir Albert Bore, leader of the Labour opposition group on the city council, called for the people of Birmingham to "be

given an unfettered choice" through a referendum on the option of a directly elected mayor.

The council would only be given additional powers and budgets by the Government if it could show "visible leadership and accountability", he added.

Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry described the White Paper as "a fudge".

Head of policy Charlotte Ritchie said: "We are disappointed it includes no real detail of what powers will be devolved, including financial tools and the future of local government finance.

"Central Government must provide real leadership on the issue of devolution, rather than leaving it up to councils to decide among themselves. There needs to be real incentives in terms of powers for the local authorities to decide the best option for their town or city."

Ms Ritchie said Chamber members were undecided about the issue of an elected mayor. While it might deliver strong leadership, there would be too much dependency on the qualities of one individual.

John James, West Midlands chairman of the Institute of Directors, described Mr Woolas's remarks as "a wake up call for Birmingham".

He added: ""It is obvious that the Government is unhappy with the leadership and direction of Birmingham.

"How our city leaders respond will be a test of their leadership skills. Will they do what they have done in the past, which is to be defensive and damn their critics, or will they be mature enough to have an open debate about these choices followed by a referendum setting out clear options?"

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The Local Government White Paper, entitled 'Strong and Prosperous Communities', can be downloaded for free here

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