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Exclusive: Sir Howard Bernstein interview with Construction News

The Manchester City Council chief executive has overseen strong growth and wrested power from Whitehall. So where does his development focus lie as the devolution agenda gathers pace?

Two minutes into my interview with Sir Howard Bernstein, I begin to get nervous.

Having placed my dictaphone on the table between us as we began our conversation, I now start to question whether it will pick up his voice and reach forward to nudge it closer towards him.

Turns out Manchester City Council’s chief executive, the driving force behind its economic growth and an architect of wresting devolution powers from Whitehall, is rather softly spoken.

We’re perched on the corner of a long wooden table, surrounded by books and papers stacked up in piles around the room.

Hanging proudly on the walls above this organised mess are numerous Manchester City Football Club collectables, including a framed poster with the words ‘This is Our City’ enlarged for all of Sir Howard’s guests to see.

It is clear this is no typical local authority chief, something which may begin to explain his success to date: development in Manchester is booming; there’s a buzz in the area; local authorities are working in harmony and behind it all you will find Sir Howard, working his magic.

Retaining Manchester’s heritage

“Any city that has ambitions about how it positions itself internationally, and how it drives regeneration and growth, should celebrate its heritage,” Sir Howard tells me, taking a sip of tea from his sky blue football mug.

For the born and bred Mancunian, heritage is an important ingredient to growing an economy and something the city has held onto successfully while development has accelerated.

“Look at something like the Free Trade Hall,” he laughs, referring to the iconic venue that played host to bands including the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd.

“That wasn’t something with huge architectural merit. But nonetheless, it was a building with significant heritage and character because of what it represented to the music scene in Manchester in the 50s and 60s.”

Sir Howard Bernstein chief executive Manchester City Council 07579

“We need to address the quality of what is built and that is going to become a big issue in Manchester”

He explains that because of this, artefacts associated with the building have been preserved in what is now a Radisson Hotel.

Sticking with music, I ask him about the transformation of the well-known 80s nightclub, the Hacienda.

The club, which was owned by Factory Records head honcho Tony Wilson and the band New Order, had persistent financial troubles, which led to its closure in 1997.

There were calls at the time for it to become a museum, but it was subsequently demolished and turned into a block of high-end flats by developer Crosby Homes North West.

Sir Howard explains: “The issue with the Hacienda was [it was] just a big building. It was what went on in there that was historically important, so the judgement at the time was that the building couldn’t be converted into a vibrant new use.”

There may be more difficult decisions to be made as Manchester continues to grow, but this isn’t a prospect keeping Sir Howard up at night.

“Every conceivable heritage asset [cannot] be productively transformed. Where that is not possible and where there is a justification for demolition or to significantly change the character of a building to create that long-term productive use, we have to be prepared to do that.”

The values of foreign investment

But as more foreign investment flows into the city, I ask whether it is still possible to hold onto the city’s heritage.

“We have to be clear about what values we have”, the chief executive replies calmly, pointing out that almost the whole of Manchester is covered by a strategic development framework.

“This gives very clear signals about the role particular buildings or parts of the city need to play in Manchester and the region.”

Sir Howard has a genuinely hands-on approach to the development in the city, working with investors in the development community from the first stages of their projects.

This way of working can be seen through schemes such as Manchester Life, a joint venture between the city council and Manchester City owners, Abu Dhabi United Group.

Sir Howard Bernstein chief executive Manchester City Council 07471

“Too much housing policy at a national level is determined by the problems of the market in London and the South-east”

The Manchester Life Development Company JV is currently delivering the first phase of works, which will provide more than 900 homes spanning six development sites across Ancoats and New Islington.

Work will also include the regeneration of Manchester’s Murray’s Mills - a complex of former cotton mills near Rochdale Canal - in another example of how Manchester’s heritage is cherished as vibrant new neighbourhoods are created.

Asked whether he’s ever felt under pressure to employ overseas contractors as a result of these strong relationships with foreign investors, Sir Howard lets out a laugh.

“No, I’ve not felt under pressure,” he says leaning forward, gesticulating to show he is talking solely about himself.

“Everyone’s looking for best value and I think, wherever feasible or practical, that [best value is achieved]… it’s all about value for money and people, and we go with the people who deliver consistently well for us.”

Improved quality control

The chief executive’s drive for best value, however, does not detract from his mission to build quality buildings in his city.

His comments echo those of his close collaborator Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the city council, who told me in October that the city was at risk of getting “a lot of cheap tat built” if the authority didn’t take a hands-on approach to design and development.

It’s obvious the pair share the same concerns.”We need to address the quality of what is being built and that is going to become a big issue in Manchester,” Sir Howard says.

“There were some developments that were built around 10 years ago, which didn’t always meet the highest quality standards, and we’ve got to take a grip of that.”

He explains that the council’s decision to adopt the London design code was a step in the right direction to ensuring that quality buildings are built in the city.

“Where there is a justification for demolition or to change a building’s character, we have to be prepared to do that”

“This sends a real signal to the development and construction industry that high quality is absolutely essential to long-term sustainability in development.”

One area where this will be particularly pressing is in Manchester’s growing private rented sector, which Sir Howard says has been allowed to flourish in the city.

He is critical of housing policy, saying the government has got it wrong, with “too much housing policy at a national level determined by the particular problems of the housing market in London and the South-east”.

Sir Howard Bernstein chief executive Manchester City Council 07615

But PRS is growing in the North-west and we can expect more development to come.

The chief executive signals that the regeneration being carried out by the Manchester Life Development Company at Ancoats strikes him as being an obvious place for PRS development to grow.

Parts of the city’s southern, western and northern fringes, including Manchester’s £800m mixed-use Noma development, are other areas to watch out for.

“There will also be new proposals issued soon on Angel Meadow, around the Co-op and without prejudging what the outcome will be, it seems to me that PRS will be a big part of those developments going forward,” he says.

Northern project wishlist?

But the longer I talk with Sir Howard, the clearer it becomes that it is not one sector or one big scheme that is propelling the city forward.

Much like London, development in Manchester is increasing by the day, whether it’s in the residential, infrastructure or commercial sectors, and Sir Howard wants to see that growth continue across the board.

On offices, he points out that a lot are being built, with even more coming through the pipeline. “We reached a point last year where demand was outstripping supply, but that is starting to change a little bit and we have got to encourage the right developments coming forward.”

I try to push him to reveal the “wishlist” of projects he wants to see built in the North of England, but he won’t bite. Surely he would rather see High Speed 3 progressed ahead of Crossrail 2?

“These things are not either or,” Sir Howard responds matter of factly. “It needs to be all of them.”

Sir Howard Bernstein chief executive Manchester City Council 07388

“Compelling investment propositions exist, not just in Manchester but elsewhere in the North”

Whether it’s HS2, HS3 or Crossrail 2, different regions need certain transport improvements to achieve their economic potential, he asserts.

“It happens everywhere else in the world so why not in the North of England? We have to prioritise transport investment in those terms.”

As Construction News went to press, the industry was awaiting the chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review, with backing for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ expected to feature prominently in George Osborne’s priority list.

Sources expect Sir Howard to focus on applying pressure to the government to ensure the finance keeps flowing – not just to Manchester but to the whole of the region. So how does Sir Howard intend to do that?

“Compelling investment propositions… the stuff we have been doing over the last four years, which has attracted international investment. I’m sure my colleagues in Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield are doing the same thing, but you can’t artificially create platforms.

“They have to be realisable, compelling investment propositions and I’m convinced that they exist, not just in Manchester as we’re showing, but that they exist elsewhere in the North of England.”

Succession planning

And with that our meeting is called to a halt: “I’m due with the leader,” Sir Howard says, readying himself to stand but not before I can get one last question in:

Who could possibly fill Sir Howard’s shoes? He laughs: “Oh no, I don’t comment on that, that’s for others to judge.”

Whoever that person is won’t have an easy role to take on.

There is a joke among construction professionals in the city that succeeding Sir Howard will be a bit like following Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United boss – although he may not welcome the comparison.

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