By Nick Golding
The Conservatives are considering abolishing chief executives in cities and handing their responsibilities to new 'super-mayors'.
Speaking to the Conservatives' spring forum in Manchester, Lord Heseltine said: 'Why do we need two chief executives - one badly paid and answerable to an electorate and one extremely well paid and enjoying a tenure far removed from public accountability?
'I believe that the time has come to combine these two jobs. I believe great cities should elect great leaders and hold them to account.
'They should be elected by the constituency of the whole city and not just a constituency that is often an unrepresentative part of it.'
Lord Heseltine believes the resulting 'great leaders' would improve local accountability, lessening Whitehall's desire to meddle in local affairs.
The radical suggestion has been given weight by the faith placed by party leader David Cameron in Lord Heseltine to reshape city policy. Mr Cameron made him chairman of the cities task force, charged with devising regeneration policies.
A Conservative spokeswoman cautioned: 'Lord Heseltine has freedom to express personal opinions that may not be something Caroline Spelman [shadow secretary for the office of the deputy prime minister] will adopt as policy.'
However, it is clear the Conservatives are anxious to fundamentally reshape their attitude towards cities. Last month Mr Cameron endorsed 'limited experiments in local democracy', including more directly elected mayors.
Nicholas Boles, the director of the Policy Exchange think-tank and a friend of Mr Cameron, said he believed the party leader would be 'interested' in Lord Heseltine's proposal.
'There are different models of to what extent the executive leadership in an authority is invested in a mayor, and to what extent it is in officials,' he said.
'He's saying cities should have an elected, recognisable leader who everyone can hold responsible. Inevitably, under any model where you have a full-time directly-elected mayor, your chief executive will be much more of a backroom figure.'
Mr Boles suggested the new model could be first used in the largest cities before being implemented in non-urban areas.
If Lord Heseltine's proposal becomes policy, the concept of breaking down the boundaries between political and officer-led spheres of responsibility will send shockwaves through local government.
David Clark, director general of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said none of England's elected mayors had shown enthusiasm to be responsible for the day-to-day administration of their council.
'If you have really good political leadership and really good managerial leadership it's a good check and balance between the two,' he said.
Steve Bullock, elected mayor of Lewisham LBC (Lab), said he was 'not convinced' of the need for change.
'I can't see how [Lord Heseltine's proposal] would work without getting away from the notion of the neutral
civil service-style approach of local government officials,' he said.