“MOST Council chief executives are good at writing reports about how difficult things are,” says Graham Stringer. “They understand their own role but not necessarily how to make their city work and the relationships that need to be developed. Howard does. In local government terms he’s been the stand out striker, the one who can finish as well as set the chance up. This may annoy him, but I think he’s been the city council’s Sir Alex Ferguson.”
So do you think this Bernstein fella could sort out some of our cities as well?
Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton and the ex-City Council Leader, is well aware that Sir Howard Bernstein is a fierce Manchester City fan and not a follower of United and Ferguson. Stringer has known Bernstein for ‘a third of a century’. He knows his worth to the city and across the country.
“If there’s any council chief executive that all the other UK chief executives have heard of, it's Howard,” he says.
Meanwhile, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, says, “I just think in lots of different ways he’s the star of British local government and frankly I can’t think of anyone who comes close to him.”
And people outside the world of chief executives and government have heard of Bernstein. City commentators across the globe know that name and that scarf. Last year I conducted several tours for Manchester International Festival and an American guest from somewhere that might have been New Mexico said, “So do you think this Bernstein fella could sort out some of our cities as well?”
He probably could, but then he is very much Mancunian through and through, and would likely display little enthusiasm for public office beyound the borders.
Born in 1953, in Cheetham Hill, he’s risen through the ranks in Manchester Town Hall from a teenager gofer in 1971 to civil service king of the hill by 1998. By the time he retires in 2017 he’ll have completed 46 years of civic duty. Good Lord, 46 years. If anybody knows the atmosphere within town halls, that stale yet tense cocktail of boredom and resentment, then Sir Howard deserves an immediate peerage let alone a knighthood for sticking it out.
In which case a salary of more than £200k makes sense, especially given his record of steering achievement. From the rebuild after the IRA bomb, through the Commonwealth Games, the development of distinct areas such as Spinningfields, Noma, the growth of Manchester Airport, the spread of Metrolink and the negotiations that created the Northern Powerhouse, Bernstein has been a central player. Only the most purblind fool would think this city, especially in its central areas, isn’t immeasurably better than it was in 1998.
“The key has been continuity,” says Stringer. “Howard’s been surrounded by stable politics and that’s meant the leader of the council and the chief executive’s department can set goals and work effectively to achieve them. His interface with the private sector, at the same time, is second to none.”
Mike Ingall, boss of Allied London, the developer behind Spinningfields, St John’s and now London Road Fire Station, agrees.
“The success of just under twenty years of determined, accurate and focussed civic leadership has been the mainstay of Manchester's success. In partnership Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein have created a city that has not just opened its doors, but actively gone out and encouraged a private sector, with a similar vision, to walk through them.
“Sir Howard Bernstein,” Ingall continues, “has particularly championed regeneration partnerships. People involved in those partnerships will know the marked difference Sir Howard makes to key projects. There is never a time in the day or night Sir Howard has not been available when I have called. I have no doubt he will continue to play a part in the future of Manchester and the region.”
There are rumours of commercial favourites, of cosy relationships. Nobody will go on record to say anything, of course
Yet, of course, there is another Manchester outside the city centre with its beetling cranes and ambitious growth plans. During Sir Howard’s reign as chief executive, which mirrors Council Leader Sir Richard Leese’s tenure almost exactly, serious social problems in many parts of the city have scarcely improved, even if physically much has been done. Low education standards, the lack of aspiration and the terrible health indices have proved intractable.
Sir Howard Bernstein himself has said in The Guardian: “The platform we have in Manchester for change and growth is unprecedented in generations. Whoever takes over from me, the long term future of this city is very, very strong.”
Yet he feels the job is not over and the ongoing task is ‘to ensure everyone who lives here has the opportunity to share in, and contribute to, its growing success.” This was one of the reasons Bernstein and Leese pursued Devolution Manchester so vigorously. They both believe that real improvement will only come when decisions are made here and not in Whitehall.
Some in the city will also see Sir Howard’s retirement as an opportunity to create a situation in which the Town Hall not only listens to intelligent criticism but responds to it. There has been a feeling amongst some in the city that there’s an autocratic element to the way power, certainly over development, seems bilaterally shared between the Leader and the Chief Executive offices, with secondary input from the private sector but not necessarily from the general public, no matter how wise their comments are. Manchester’s public consultations have become a byword for being empty of meaning.
As a writer and commentator on the city I’ve had conversations with architects, entrepreneurs and others about how nothing goes ahead without a Town Hall nod. There are rumours of commercial favourites, of cosy relationships. Nobody will go on record to say anything, of course (as a writer you can dream), but it has been stated on several occasions how business just simply will not take the initiative without Albert Square approval.
Perhaps, after such a long time, such rumours are inevitable. Perhaps the point is that the Bernstein/Leese axis approach works. It delivers.
Certainty and stability when it comes to investment is crucial (as we keep hearing again and again over Brexit). If stability is a measure of success for a city administration then Sir Howard Bernstein has been an absolute rock. He has delivered again and again through a mix of shrewdness, brains and hard work. As an aside, he’s almost certainly the only chief executive who’s developed a look. That scarf has become his leitmotif, one even worn in the heat of a property convention in Cannes.
That sense of a steady hand at the helm is on the minds of many in the city.
Sir Howard Bernstein’s achievement is such you can smell the worry about the succession. Who, people are asking, can possibly match up to Sir Howard? Mike Ingall sums up what many feel. “He retires now, but his work must be the pointer to the rest of us. We must continue to operate in the spirit he successfully created.’
Manchester’s Coat of Arms bears the words ‘Concilio et Labore’. This means, ‘Through wisdom and hard work’ or even, ‘Talk about it and then do it’. Either of these could just as well be the epitaph for Sir Howard Bernstein’s Town Hall life as a public servant, a man who cared for his place of birth so deeply he devoted his life to it. Through his commitment to his own city he has become an international paradigm and that is not bad for a Cheetham Hill lad who almost half a century ago began his working life washing the tea mugs in a Manchester Town Hall office as a callow 18-year-old.