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Manchester City Council chief Sir Howard Bernstein set to retire. What happens next?

With chief executive of Manchester City Council Sir Howard Bernstein due to step down next spring, what does the construction industry need to see from his successor?

As far as obvious comparisons go, this one felt inevitable.

Manchester City Council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein’s announcement that he would retire in spring 2017 has been likened to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from Old Trafford a number of seasons ago – two talismanic, almost irreplaceable figures that have driven success in their respective fields for the last 25 years.

Although it’s not a comparison Manchester City fan Sir Howard might welcome, there’s no doubt the region now faces a challenge adjusting to life without one of its driving forces.

And it’s not just an uncertain period for the city, but for the whole Northern Powerhouse agenda, in which Sir Howard was one of the key players.

So where does Sir Howard’s retirement leave the city? Who is in line to succeed? And what would contractors want to see from the next person to take up the mantle?

Bolt from the blue

The news that Sir Howard would retire was met with shock by contractors and clients.

Guy Lawson, director at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association North-west describes it as a “bolt from the blue”, while Mace head of the North Steve Gillingham admits it’s been a scenario “we’d all put to the back of our minds for as long as possible”.

That shock soon turned to reflection on what Sir Howard had achieved since he took up the role of chief executive in 1998.

Sir Howard first joined Manchester City Council in 1971 as a junior clerk, and rose to prominence as chief executive of Manchester Millennium Ltd, which oversaw the transformation of the city centre in the wake of the 1996 IRA bombing.

“Howard’s impact on every aspect of this city’s development has been profound”

Chris Oglesby, Bruntwood

In his role as chief executive, alongside council leader Sir Richard Leese, he has helped to champion Manchester’s role as a hub of growth in the North, bringing investment to regeneration schemes such as Spinningfields and NOMA in the city centre.

And contractors, developers and clients alike are effusive in their praise of a man who has helped to bring so much regeneration to the city.

“Howard’s impact on every aspect of this city’s development has been profound, and his articulation of the role of cities in leading economic growth has influenced governments and policy-makers nationally and internationally,” says Chris Oglesby, CEO of Bruntwood, one of the city’s largest developers.

Ted Macdougal, development director at Bolton-based construction firm Forrest, echoes this view, saying that Sir Howard’s “sense of entrepreneurial commercial management” in the council has helped high-profile development get under way.

“He’s had an unswerving belief that what he’s intended for the city is the right thing with the right outcome, and it’s proved to be the case time and time again,” he says.

Potential successors

But aside from Sir Howard’s innumerable achievements, his departure leaves one key question hanging over the city’s future: what happens next?

The first step is to name a successor as chief executive, with the council’s personnel committee due to convene to discuss potential candidates.

And, speaking to a range of contractors and consultants, two names are mentioned frequently as the leading candidates to follow Sir Howard.

Eamonn Boylan, who has served as chief executive of Stockport Council since 2010, has been tipped as a potential successor, having worked under Sir Howard as deputy chief executive at Manchester City Council for six years between 2002 and 2008.

Mr Lawson says that Mr Boylan’s “commitment” to regeneration and development means that he would be seen as a strong continuity candidate to the council’s current policies.

”There’s no way that [Sir Howard] would have put that announcement out without having a plan”

Steve Gillingham, Mace

Another name frequently mentioned is former chief executive of Oldham Council Charlie Parker, who joined Westminster Council as chief executive in 2014.

Mr Parker has retained close links with Manchester, and with a growing devolution agenda, sources argue that he could be the ideal candidate to act as a link between the city and central government.

Mr Gillingham says that, whoever the new chief executive might be, they will still be able to benefit from a period of transition and steady leadership, particularly from Sir Richard Leese as leader of the council.

“Howard doesn’t do anything by accident, and there’s no way that he would have put that announcement [of his retirement] out without having a plan,” Mr Gillingham says.

“The bottom line is that it’s always been a partnership. Sir Richard’s not going anywhere at the moment, giving at least a couple of years for whoever is the new chief executive to really get close to him and pick up the mantle.”

Manchester’s new mayor

But with all the talk of a direct successor, the city’s mayoral elections in May next year could well signal a step-change in the way the city is run and how it is developed in the future – and it’s these elections that could have been the catalyst for Sir Howard’s decision, Mr Macdougal says.

“You can’t help but think the impending arrival of the city’s [elected] mayor and the implications that has for leaders like Howard Bernstein and leaders across Manchester, would certainly be a contributing factor.”

Chris Hallam, partner at law firm Nabarro, agrees that, with a new mayor having powers over housing, transport, healthcare and policing, “perhaps Sir Howard felt it was the right time to stand aside”.

It represents a shift in dynamic, with the role of the mayor and their interactions with the council leadership team still unclear.

Leading mayoral candidate Andy Burnham has already proposed radical changes to the devolution deal, with his policy earmarking the region’s £300m housing fund for public, rather than private, development.

“There’s a perception that a new set of hands guiding the tiller might open up other opportunities”

Ted Macdougal, Forrest

Mr Lawson says he is sure that Mr Burnham would want to “put his own stamp” on the way the city is run and the way it is developed.

And Mr Macdougal says that there will be changes simply down to having “a very different personality” at the helm.

“There’s a perception that a new set of hands guiding the tiller might open up other opportunities,” he adds.

Part of that would be directly from the £300m commitment for more affordable homes, with Mr Macdougal arguing that there had been more focus on “higher-end” development in the city.

“Manchester borough had a glut of affordable housing so for a period of time there was no obligation for developers to build and provide affordable housing, but we’re slowly seeing that begin to return into planning obligations,” he says.

“That’s a very healthy thing for the city; for a contractor like us, that’d bring further opportunities to build affordable housing that is much needed.”

And that view is shared by Nigel Sedman, director of investment and regeneration at housing group ForViva, who says that the funding could help plug the gap left by declining HCA grants.

“It would make affordable rent properties that much more viable,” he says.

“There is a massive need in Salford for affordable rent properties, as there are a lot of people who will never be in a position to buy properties, so we still need to meet that.”

Contractors want continuity

But what would contractors and developers want to see from what could be a radically different leadership team come next May?

“It’s absolutely about continuity,” Mr Gillingham argues. “Not just of the policies, because they’ve been clear, but the energy with which [Sir Howard] drove them.”

Mr Macdougal echoes that, with consistency of policy being a key driver behind Forrest’s growth to become one of the city’s leading contractors.

“Without doubt, we as a contractor benefited from the strategic, planned growth of the city, driven by commercial and residential development,” he says.

“What we want to see as a contractor is a continuation of the drive and the delivery of the strategy for the city, which is going to enable us to continue to benefit from the volume of construction work and activity which is out there.”

And Mr Hallam says that “continuity, consistency and an open approach to the business community” are all key to maintaining the city’s growth.

And what about the Northern Powerhouse, of which Sir Howard was one of the driving forces?

Northern powerhouse

George Osborne’s announcement today that he would lead a think-tank on the future of the Northern Powerhouse suggests it will not disappear from the political agenda, despite a shift in government attitudes to an overarching ‘industrial strategy’ rather than regional-focused approach.

Mr Osborne worked closely with Sir Howard on the city’s devolution deal – Mr Lawson argues that Sir Howard has already “done the heavy lifting” when it comes to securing devolution – and whoever comes in to replace him is likely to continue to work closely with the former chancellor.

But Mr Macdougal argues that growth in Manchester “can’t not continue”, with schemes, developments and funding all secured regardless of who is in charge.

“Manchester is the lynchpin in the Northern Powerhouse, in my view, and the ability of Manchester to secure such significant partnerships from funds that have come from China and the Middle East, without doubt has been a response to the regeneration of the city which started 20 years ago,” he says.

And that regeneration will be Sir Howard’s legacy; opening up the city as the leading light of the Northern Powerhouse, a hub of development outside of London, and putting Manchester on the cusp of becoming a leading global city.

It’s not just what has been developed, but the drive and passion that Sir Howard has shown for the city, argues Mr Gillingham.

“For me, it’s the passion and the unrelenting energy in which he’s done it,” he says.

“When you’re next to the guy he’s absolutely fizzing. There are lots of other people out there who are very capable, but it’s unusual to have that drive.”

Whoever follows next will certainly have big shoes to fill.

Sir Howard talks to CN

Sir Howard Bernstein talks to Construction News about the city’s growth and the future of the Northern Powerhouse.

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