Rattling Chamberlain's ghost

Was it a keen sense of irony or a lack of awareness of local history that took Michael Heseltine and local government minister, Greg Clark to Birmingham on the first step of their campaign for elected mayors? Birmingham - the city of Joe Chamberlain, probably the greatest municipal innovator of the Victorian era, who achieved all his reforms under the present structure of local government.

Chamberlain was chosen by his fellow councillors as mayor of Birmingham in 1873, just three years after first being elected to the city council. He set in train the formation of a municipal gas undertaking, got the council to take over the water company, redeveloped the city centre, began slum clearance and, via the School Board, ensured secular education in the board schools. All this was accomplished during three successive annual terms as Mayor under the same system we have today.

In Leeds the larger than life Charles Wilson, who ran the council for twenty years and who was happy to claim 'I am Leeds,' would have fallen about with laughter at the idea that he could only do what he did for the city if he had been a directly elected mayor. Similarly, the Rev Charles Jenkinson's name became a byword for slum clearance and a massive house building programme in the city - included the celebrated Quarry Hill flats with 938 apartments of varying sizes. He achieved this in three brief years as housing committee chair without even being leader of the council.

The London example is oft quoted with the purported benefits of being able to vote directly for Ken Livingstone or Boris Johnson. But does anyone suggest that Ken Livingstone was any less powerful when he was the 'mere' leader of the Greater London Council? Indeed, so effective was he that Mrs Thatcher felt the urgent need to abolish the whole Council!

Of course, if the Conservatives are to extol the example of London then they should also explain that there is also a Greater London Authority elected at the same time as the Mayor, deliberately providing the necessary 'legislature' as a counterbalance to an elected 'executive.' This is very different to imposing an elected mayor on the present structure.

Frankly, elected mayors are a sleight of hand designed to hide the steady erosion of local government powers that has happened over the past sixty years. It is the lack of powers that inhibits many good candidates from coming forward. And why should anyone run for election as a councillor with no chance of exercising any executive office? In Leeds housing problems were always seventy per cent of my caseload but the city council no longer runs the housing service. It is a nonsense.

If electors in northern cities need one word to put them off voting for elected mayors, then let's try 'Doncaster'. The existence of the elected office there has been a disaster, with dreadful relationships with chief officers, huge problems in appointing a cabinet and permanent strife with many elected councillors. The example is not one to follow.