THE chief architect of David Cameron’s rejected plan to install powerful elected mayors in 10 of England’s largest cities has said he did not support the decision to put the proposal to the public vote.
Lord Heseltine, the Conservative grandee who convinced the Prime Minister that the best way to drive growth in cities was by replacing traditional council leaders with London-style mayors, has told the Yorkshire Post he “subscribes to the view” that the policy should have been implemented without holding referendums.
Mr Cameron threw his weight behind the policy following a report by Lord Heseltine for the Conservatives in 2007 which concluded economic regeneration could be accelerated in the regions if mayors were installed in major cities and given powers to attract investment and drive growth.
But the coalition agreement said the issue must be put to the public vote, and mayors were last week rejected in nine of the 10 cities including Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield.
Lord Heseltine said he blamed obstruction from entrenched local councillors for the failure to win public support.
“I was disappointed, but I had always thought the local councillors would resist the Government’s moves – and their voices in local communities proved decisive in the majority of cases,” he said.
“The growth agenda would have been significantly enhanced if we could have got that dynamism into our cities and city regions.
“We haven’t succeeded in all of them, but we have in some. It is for the Government to decide how they now get that degree of enterprise into local government.”
Turn-out in last week’s referendums was desperately low, with fewer than one in three people bothering to vote. In several cities turn-out fell below 25 per cent.
“You have to realise that the public interest in this matter is minimal,” Lord Heseltine said.
“There is no local interest and no local belief in the local authority, however it is run, to deliver the dynamism cities need.”
Put to Lord Heseltine that the Government should therefore have simply implemented the policy without public vote, he said: “I personally subscribe to that view. I personally distrust referendums, and low turn-outs especially.”
The Tory peer refused to criticise the decision, however, adding: “But let me defend the Government. There would have been an outcry, saying they are stampeding and overruling us.”
Lord Heseltine’s stance was supported by another Conservative, Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers, also a fan of elected mayors.
“I think they should have just imposed it,” he said. “But there are different views on that.”
The Government last night defended the referendums, insisting it was “right” to put the matter to public vote. A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said that despite the outcomes, it will proceed with the “City Deals” designed to give new powers to metropolitan councils.
“It was right that local people were given the chance to decide how their city is governed,” the spokesman said. “We will continue to finalise City Deals over the coming months, and expect to invite another wave of cities to join those already proposing deals.”
Meanwhile Cities Minister Greg Clark said this week the string of “no” votes would not mean the end of the line for elected mayors.
Mr Clark highlighted the positive vote in Bristol along with elected mayors now in place in Liverpool, Leicester and Salford as proof the policy is moving forward.
“Sometimes change comes step by step through demonstration rather than revolution,” he said.
“Those four cities will prosper and be examples of what can be achieved. Others will watch with great interest and have a chance to join them in the future.”