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The time has come to grapple with the rules on referendums, says Simon Parker, LGC political correspondent. ...
The time has come to grapple with the rules on referendums, says Simon Parker, LGC political correspondent.

Now the Local Government Act has reached the statute books, the race is on to establish Britain's next directly elected mayor.

Lewisham LBC's indirectly elected mayor, Dave Sullivan, claims his borough will be the first to emulate London. 'We want to be the first council in the country to hold a referendum,' he said.

The London borough may well be the first, but it will not be alone. The other councils likely to go down the mayoral route in the near future can be divided into two categories - those who will choose to hold a mayoral referendum and those likely to be forced into it.

Watford BC, Newcastle City Council and Birmingham City Council are likely to fall into the former category, while Bath & North East Somerset DC and Liverpool City Council fall into the latter. Small grass-roots campaigns have sprung up in both areas and, with money from the New Local Government Network, are planning to petition their councils to force them to hold a mayoral referendum.

To do so, the campaigners need to sign up 5% of the local electorate. The government has been criticised for setting what seems a low target, but the threshold can translate into large numbers of signatures in metropolitan areas. Liverpool campaigners estimate they need to sign up around 15,000 people.

If a referendum is called, the first action councils will have to take is to prepare fallback proposals if the voters reject a mayor. If there is a yes vote, the decision is legally binding. If the proposal is rejected, the fallback measures, in the majority of cases a cabinet with leader, come into force.

Councils will not have much influence on the outcome of a referendum. Draft guidance says they cannot use public money to mount campaigns for or against mayoral proposals, though members and party groups will have more freedom.

The guidance says in the 28 days before the referendum councils will only be allowed to issue limited factual information about their political management proposals: 'As far as possible during those final four weeks, public debate on referendum issues should be conducted by individuals and groups in the political arena, without any further input from the local authority.'

The referendums themselves will be blunt instruments. The government's proposed question reads simply: 'Are you in favour of the proposals for a mayor, elected by all the electors for [name of area of authority] to lead [name of authority] and to be in charge of running the council's services?'

It seems likely councils will foot the costs of both referendums and mayoral elections. Campaigners on either side will only be allowed to spend a limited amount, though ministers have yet to make firm proposals on the limits.

The timetable for referendums is sketchy, and will partly depend on how quickly the government can issue guidance. If, as expected, it is released in the autumn, referendums could be possible later this year.

Some councils will probably hold their referendum to coincide with a possible May general election in the hope of securing the high turnout needed to give their mayor a crucial popular mandate.

Some councils are already trying to resist the mayoral tide. Liverpool threw out its democracy commission's call for a referendum and other cities, such as Manchester and Oxford, are set against mayors. But the government favours the model, and ministers will launch a publicity campaign to promote it.

Just as importantly, mayors have novelty on their side and an air of radical change about them, which will win both votes and the support of the local media. Those councils that do resist could find they are swimming against a tidal wave.

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