THE Government is on a collision course with senior Yorkshire council leaders after revealing it intends to turn them into mayors whether they like it or not.
On the day Ministers reveal exactly by how much each council's budget will be cut next year, the Government will confirm today it wants referendums in Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield in May 2012 over whether to introduce powerful elected mayors to run the cities.
But despite widespread opposition to the idea, the four council leaders in those cities will be turned into "shadow mayors" beforehand in an attempt to win voters over to the idea.
Last night, Bradford Council leader Ian Greenwood slammed the proposal as a "party political imposition", while the leader of Sheffield Council, Paul Scriven, said it was a "complete distraction."
The decision appears to be a remarkable change of tack by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who will confirm the plans today as part of a Localism Bill, which will see more powers devolved from central Government to local areas. He promised in October "the referendum will come before the decision".
He will reveal how much funding each council will receive next year, as town halls – which will see average funding cuts of more than 20 per cent over four years – are braced for serious reductions.
The drive to install elected mayors in England's 12 largest cities – which includes Wakefield when using council boundaries – was a Tory manifesto pledge, but has little support among councillors in the region.
Under the plans, the leaders of 12 of England's biggest cities would become shadow mayors after the Localism Bill becomes law, and would receive powers available to existing council mayors such as Peter Davies in Doncaster. In reality, these are similar to those wielded by council leaders already, and the shift would be more of a symbolic one.
Mayoral referendums would then be held in May 2012, on the same day as local elections. If the outcome is a "yes" vote, mayoral elections would be held in May 2013.
A Government source said: "Almost every major city in the world has a strong and powerful executive mayor.
"Mayors give local citizens a powerful local leader and figure head for municipal government, better deliver local economic growth, boost local democratic engagement and enhance the prestige of a city."
Speculation earlier this year that the Government would rebadge council leaders as mayors before any referendum sparked fury in Yorkshire.
Leeds Council leader Keith Wakefield branded it "totally undemocratic" and Peter Box, leader of Wakefield Council, said there was "no support" across the parties for an elected mayor.
Coun Greenwood told the Yorkshire Post last night: "The elected mayor model is not appropriate for Bradford. It's a massively diverse place – it's socially diverse, culturally diverse and economically diverse – and the leadership should be a collective leadership that reflects all of those strands.
"That's impossible in terms of an individual elected mayor.
"There is already legislation in place that allows us to have a referendum on an elected mayor if we want one, but we don't.
"This is a party political imposition on Bradford which is inappropriate. It's a political decision taken in spite of local issues."
Coun Scriven said: "Eric Pickles is spending a lot of time getting his knickers in a twist over the wrong thing. A good, strong leader doesn't have to be a mayor, you can be a good leader as leader of the council. I think this is a complete distraction."