Perhaps the greatest tribute to Sir Howard Bernstein and his achievements as the chief executive of Manchester City Council is the requests he gets from other places to help them out. After successfully delivering the Commonwealth Games in 2002, a feat for which he was rewarded with a knighthood, there was much interest in whether his approach and the legacy that followed was a template. Afterall, other sporting adventures like the World Student Games in Sheffield and a Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh had been a financial disaster. But this was a clear statement that Manchester was a serious international city capable of delivering serious international projects and building a business legacy on a strong cultural and sporting base. More specifically, the strategic location of the building of the stadium in the East of the city was intended to be a catalyst for regeneration and place making.
Not surprising then that the Olympic Delivery Authority were keen to pick his brain once London had won the bid to host the world’s greatest sporting spectacle in 2005. So, he joined the board for a brief time.
The reason he didn’t stick at it for long may partly have been down to the time commitment that took him away from his first love – Manchester, but also because he got another extra-curricular role closer to home, as chairman of regeneration company ReBlackpool after Manchester was given the right to build Britain’s first ‘supercasino’ – throwing Blackpool’s regeneration plans into chaos. Blackpool had suffered considerably from a decline in tourist numbers, from social deprivation, from benefit tourism and from a spiralling decline of the central area. One of the things Bernstein quickly worked out to be a barrier to Blackpool overcoming its problems was the ability of the public sector to make important strategic decisions itself.
He suggested and then spearheaded an imaginative plan to acquire Blackpool Tower and the nearby Winter Gardens, through a £38.9m cocktail of European, national, regional and local funding, also securing a management contract with Merlin Entertainments Group – which operates the London Eye, Alton Towers and Windsor Legoland.
More recently he joined a body in London called the West End Commission, which was established by Westminster council in January after it dropped plans to charge up to £4.80 an hour to park in the West End in the evenings and on Sunday afternoons. His contribution has to been to bring “a fresh, outsider’s perspective,” he said.
It is these perspectives, these clever playing of the system that have forged Sir Howard Bernstein’s reputation as the best council chief executive in the country. Much envied, much admired, frequently copied and never ever really understood.
Such a tribute was paid to him at a recent Downtown event by Lord Andrew Adonis, a man who has dealt with him as the secretary of state for education and for transport. “The best chief executive of any local authority in the country, bar none,” he said.
He is indeed without parallel; partly because he’s stuck at his task for so long, but also because his ruthless and single minded determination isn’t for his own career, but for Manchester.
Sat at a city centre hotel bar with a friend from New York a couple of years ago, Sir Howard walked in. Polite as ever, he introduced himself, always blushing a little when people call him “Sir Howard” preferring Howard.
I explained his role in the city to my friend, who was captured by his charisma. “So, he’s like the Mayor, right?”
It’s not a bad comparison. Some would characterise it as a form of big city municipal muscle. Afterall, his power and reach does look like that of the city Mayors he shares a platform with at MIPIM or at other international conventions than it does to an overpaid town clerk, which is what you’d have to describe many other local government bosses as.
As he’s not political, though there are few who can read the political tea leaves quite like him, he delivers the services the elected council require him to.
The council leader Sir Richard Leese described their relationship in simple terms: “I don’t try and do Howard’s job and he doesn’t try and do mine.” In a recent interview with Jonathan Schofield of Manchester Confidential Leese described how the complex interplay between the two works.
“Every year, the Chief Executive will be given the election manifesto and told, ‘That’s what we’re delivering over the next twelve months’. It’s actually when you get into how do you do it that it gets more complicated and it’s an iterative process, a process of discussion and debate, to get to the right solutions with the questions we’ve asked. It can take a while.”
Colleagues speak of his obsession with the city and making it a better place and never letting up on his determination to keep at it. They speak of a man with two interests, his job and Manchester City Football Club. Though of course the two are closely linked.
Those who know him well will also tell you how hard he works. He simply never switches off. He is always at it, always meeting, dealing, talking, persuading, selling and sorting.
And all of that is done with a quirky and unique style. He’s also not without a cheeky sense of humour. At a recent Downtown event he brushed aside an attempt at a discussion on ‘second city’ by saying he always thought it was London.
At the Five Cities event at MIPIM in 2012, which was in danger of being a little too po-faced, he joshed with the city official from Barcelona that the finances of his city could always be improved in a deal to sell Lionel Messi to Manchester City.
But all those jokes aside, they do all add to the single fact that the chief executive of Manchester City Council looks at life through a Manchester lens. And though that perspective sees challenges and obstacles, it also always sees opportunities.
He has constantly valued a dialogue with the private sector in pursuit of that, a role his engagement with Downtown he welcomes as opening his eyes to new people. “I go to many business events in the city and I tend to see the same people. It’s important that we penetrate the wider business community and address a broader canvas of business representation. How our city encourages businesses to expand is important.”
He’s always understood that the kind of expertise private sector partners bring can get things done in a city, leverage their knowledge, use their contacts and get projects completed.
In the aftermath of the IRA bombing of the city centre in 1996, as deputy chief executive, he gathered the senior businesses from the city together and said, let’s create an opportunity out of this terrible atrocity on our city. Let’s make the city better, not worse. The results are there for all to see.
Those kind of partnerships were extended into Hulme, to East Manchester and Castlefield, where developers like Amec and housebuilders like Bellway and Crosby would collaborate with home grown entrepreneurs in the development sector like Urban Splash and Jim Ramsbottom and architects like Ian Simpson.
At the heart of Bernstein’s strategy is place making and delivering it through clear strategic thinking.
He said last year: “Our city’s transformation has not come about through chance. Underpinning it all has been a clear strategy, a vision of where we wanted to take Manchester.
“Manchester is not a city that sits still. It’s in our DNA to constantly move forward. Which is just as well, because we need to ensure that we stay on top of our game to succeed in an ever-competitive global marketplace. The state of our country’s economy, and indeed the economies of most of the western world, as well as growing and emerging markets, leave no room for complacency.”
Initially those strong private sector links that he sought and nurtured were with property developers, agents, surveyors architects and place makers. Look at the composition of Manchester’s first business leadership team and the early Local Enterprise Partnership – but now the city, with his active leadership is reaching out to other sectors. He paid tribute at our recent event to some of the technology businesses who are playing an important part in leading the technological revolution – with a nod in the direction of Scott Fletcher of ANS and Lawrence Jones of UKFast.
But one thing that always impresses about Howard’s leadership of the city is the way he adapts central government initiatives to work effectively at a local level to achieve strategic objectives for Manchester.
Two examples – the city addressed market failure in the provision of structural finance for important signature projects that could have moved the city onwards. The city led a bid for European JESSICA funds to lever in new investment to support viable schemes which were in danger of stalling. One was the old Palmolive site which has been transformed into the Soapworks development.
Secondly, the city is addressing the needs of the smaller business base of the city with a more tailored – not to become a bank, but at least bridge gap in the provision of growth finance.
This civic entrepreneurship is what Manchester has become very good at. And it’s what starts to underpin the most compelling case yet for HS2 – that the scheme brings Manchester, and its airport, into greater connection to Europe, not just London. It will be and can be an important part of a wider strategy to make Manchester a better connected city from east to west, to China, and to Europe.
Including a HS2 stop at Manchester Airport also reinforces the argument for building the new railway sooner rather than later, and from the North downwards, not the other way round.
All told, the city is very lucky to have a leader with the single minded determination to work for the interests of the city morning noon and night.
When you see every challenge as an opportunity, every policy initiative as an intellectual test of how it can work here, rather than as an act of charity from there, then you approach life differently.
It’s often said that while many cities have their bust ups in public, Manchester always promotes a united front and keeps strong disagreements behind closed doors.
But Bernstein isn’t afraid of a fight either. He was so determined to secure proper use of the London Road Fire Station he will keep fighting until he does. The battle over the congestion charge to me was a piece of long term strategic politics for the betterment of Manchester.
But as I write this people are considering the impossible job of succeeding another knight in a Manchester institution, Sir Alex Ferguson. As he celebrated his 60th birthday recently, it is obvious that people may speculate as to what Howard may do next. And then who would replace him. The very fact that he leaves such massive shoes that no-one could fill is the second greatest tribute, the greatest is the city itself. Progressive, practical, ambitious and going places.