By Nick Golding
Ruth Kelly has told cities to scrap traditional leadership structures if they want to win the powers enjoyed by the Greater London Authority.
Ms Kelly told LGC: 'If they're seeking very serious devolution of powers along the GLA model, then I think they've got to be more ambitious about their proposals for leadership, and I'll be looking for strong, clear, transparent leadership.
'I'm saying that the more they are asking from government, the more they ask us to devolve, then the greater the premium on clear, transparent leadership - and directly elected mayors are clearly one way of achieving that.'
Although Ms Kelly said there were 'certain things' councils could do by strengthening their existing partnerships, her comments will deepen suspicions the government is forcing mayors on reluctant councils.
It is likely that only by endorsing directly elected mayors can cities win control over learning and skills councils and the powers to co-ordinate and regulate buses which Transport for London has employed to increase bus use.
However, Ms Kelly has admitted 'interest' in the idea of leaders serving a four-year term. Although this would give leaders higher profiles in individual councils, it is unclear how it could be adapted to provide a sufficiently accountable city region leadership, bringing together several councils.
Her latest comments come five months after the eight members of the Core Cities grouping submitted interim reports stating their case for additional power.
The core city regions have supported the idea of regional boards of leaders taking decisions. Ministers believe that would lack the clear vision and profile of a directly elected mayor, with political horsetrading blocking decisive action.
There was little surprise that councils where one party has traditional ascendancy, such as Labour-dominated Manchester, shunned the more volatile option of mayors. Hopes that those which have seen more change in political control, such as Birmingham and Liverpool, would be more enthusiastic have not so far been borne out.
The cities and their neighbouring councils insist there is no public appetite for mayors and that a single figure representing the whole region will merely undermine traditional local government.
Newcastle City Council leader John Shipley (Lib Dem) said: 'The only conclusion the government seems to be supporting is the elected mayors but there's no support from any city leader.
'A mayor's a centralising option and it our case it would cover the whole of Tyne & Wear. However, there's no appetite for restructuring of government in the north east.'
And David Smith (Con), chairman of the West Midlands Assembly, said:'It's an arrogant view if she says we'll give back to you the money your taxpayers provided but you have to do it the way we want. I wish government would stop telling us what to do - it takes responsibility for our future away from us.'