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Salford voters opt for elected mayor system

By Pat Hurst

A referendum in Salford has resulted in favour of having a directly elected mayor for the city.

Results from the poll showed 17,344 voted yes against 13,653 votes no, thus endorsing the new proposal.

But turnout was just 18.1% of the city's 171,000 eligible voters.

The result means residents will now vote to directly chose a mayor instead of the old system where the effective leader of the authority was chosen internally by councillors from the ruling party.

The poll was held after a petition with 9,062 signatures was collected requesting the city council hold a vote on the question.

Any local authority is legally obliged to hold a referendum if more than 5% of the electorate sign a petition under the Local Government Act of 2000.

But England's 11 largest cities will also hold referenda on the same subject in May under new plans in the coalition Government's Localism Bill.

The Government is keen to see US-style directly elected mayors in big cities to engage voters more closely in local politics and have a say in how local taxpayers' cash is being spent.

The cost of holding Salford's referendum is estimated to be around £200,000.

Voters is Salford were asked to give a Yes or No on the ballot paper to the following question: "Should the electors for the area of Salford elect a Mayor who, with a Cabinet, will be in charge of our local services and lead Salford City Council?"

Currently Salford has a ceremonial Lord Mayor, but like in most council areas the "leader - cabinet" system is used, which means the ruling political party with the majority of councillors usually chose their own cabinet and leader, where the real power lies.

In Salford, John Merry is current leader of the council, chosen by the elected councillors on the ruling Labour group, which campaigned for a No vote.

The Yes campaign said the public should elect the mayor, instead of politicians from the ruling party deciding behind closed doors.

Local businessman Geoffrey Berg triggered Salford's referendum by collecting enough signatures in the petition. His Yes campaign was supported by the English Democrat Party.

Mr Berg said he was pleased with his campaign's 3,691 vote majority in the count.

"I'm very pleased about it because the council originally said there should not be a vote," he said.

"They are out of touch with the wishes of the people they are representing. It was a low turnout but an even lower vote for the position of the council."

Mr Berg, the English Democrats and independents will now meet to decide their choice of candidate for the mayoral election later this year.

Leader of the council, Councillor Merry said he would put his name forward to be Labour's candidate in the election.

He added: "The real issue is the future of Salford and that's what I will be fighting for."

The Yes campaign had focused much effort on promising to slash council tax bills if a directly elected mayor is voted in.

Labour's Hazel Blears, the MP for Salford and Eccles, added: "It is obviously disappointing when there is a low turnout in any kind of ballot, but that's the beauty of democracy, the people are in charge and the people decide.

"The next stage of this is to elect a mayor who will be elected on policies that people care about.

"And our job as a party will be to develop policies for the future of Salford and contrast those with some of the policies put forward during this referendum, such as cutting council tax by 50%.

"This would result in serious cuts to services, care for the elderly, cleaning the streets, collecting the bins, services for children in care and at risk, which will be under threat by a massive council tax cut."

The local Conservative Party also backed the Yes campaign, in line with the Government's Localism Bill.

No campaigners said the new system would undermine democracy, by taking power away from local councillors and putting it in the hands of a single elected figurehead.

Salford's first-ever mayoral election will now be held on May 3, 2012, the same day as referenda are being held in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.

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