Sir Howard Bernstein:
Legacy of Manchester’s white knight
Manchester City Council’s visionary chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein will step down from his post this spring, ending 46 years of civic duty. As retirement beckons for the man credited with leading the city’s resurgence, Move Commercial shines the spotlight on the legacy he will leave behind and considers his impact in the commercial property sector.
Words by Mark Langshaw
When an IRA bomb detonated on Corporation Street in the summer of 1996, Manchester was plunged into the depths of despair and economic uncertainty.
But as the dust from the explosion was settling, Sir Howard Bernstein and his local government comrades were already drawing up plans to transform a stricken streetscape into the beating heart of a city centre reborn, immeasurably better than its predecessor.
Forging a formidable partnership with current council leader Sir Richard Leese, Sir Bernstein and his team worked tenaciously as they oversaw the multi-million pound rebuild and tackled seemingly insurmountable funding barriers along the way.
From the revitalised Manchester Arndale which opened in 2003 to the green oasis of Cathedral Gardens, what was once a bombsite is now a world-class leisure and retail hub beaming with civic splendour – forever a reminder of the outgoing chief executive’s glistening track record in regeneration.
“Sir Howard Bernstein’s passion for rebuilding Manchester city centre into the world-class destination it is today was a key factor for us in realising the extension of Manchester Arndale,” says Trevor Hankin, fund manager at Manchester Arndale’s joint owner M&G Real Estate.
“I am confident that without his input and determination we would not have been able to deliver the transformational redevelopment within the timescales achieved.”
A pivotal role in securing the 2002 Commonwealth Games – which was, at the time, the largest multi-sport event staged on UK soil since the 1948 Olympics – also ranks highly on Sir Howard’s expansive list of achievements.
This gold medal-worthy feat is regarded as a turning point in the history of Manchester, a milestone which breathed new life into deprived districts through sports-led regeneration and thrust the city back under the international spotlight.
The impact of the Commonwealth Games remains etched into the face of the city through flagship developments including the majestic City of Manchester Stadium, now known as the Etihad Stadium and anchored by Sir Bernstein’s beloved Manchester City FC, and the £9 million Velodrome.
Prior to hosting the tournament around 18m visitors were flocking to Manchester each year, a figure which would skyrocket to more than 90m within a decade.
“Sir Howard has always been a believer in innovation and has led from the front, bringing change to a city when it needed it most,” says Tom Higgins, director of the North for Etihad Stadium contractor Laing O’Rourke. “His role in the successful bid for the Commonwealth Games and bringing together the authorities of Greater Manchester are two of his greatest achievements.
“Laing O’Rourke recognises the work he has done in rebuilding the city and it has been an honour to work with Sir Howard and the council to bring many of their visions and aspirations to life.”
Of course, Sir Bernstein’s regenerative influence stretches back before the Commonwealth Games and even the IRA bombing, with projects including the transformation of Hulme and the construction of the Bridgewater Hall concert venue also deserving pride of place on his CV.
By 2003 he was knighted along with Sir Leese for his services to Manchester, and the city’s resurgence was showing no signs of slowing under his watch with ambitious projects including MediaCityUK, Airport City and the glitzy Spinningfields all bearing his fingerprints.
“Our partnership with Manchester City Council has extended to nearly 20 years, and in that time we have achieved real progress,” says Mike Ingall, head of Spinningfields developer Allied London.
“Our joint success at Spinningfields has been nationally and internationally recognised – this would not have been possible without transparent, honest and considered commitment to the partnership by both parties. Sir Bernstein has led that commitment, and in doing so has enabled it to work and be a success for the benefit of the city and wider community.”
Although Sir Bernstein will always be synonymous with regeneration, the infrastructure improvements during his town hall tenure must not be overlooked, from the spread of the Metrolink network to the establishment of Manchester Airport as a limited company.
“Sir Howard has been at the heart of the many developments which have contributed to Manchester being recognised as a world leading city in the eyes of international investors and visitors alike,” says Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group.
“That includes support for the development of Manchester Airport and Airport City, which has been evident over many years.”
“Sir Howard has been at the heart of the many developments which have contributed to Manchester being recognised as a world leading city.”
Many believe the culture of collaboration Sir Bernstein championed is a key part of his legacy, hailing his success in uniting the public and private sectors to secure critical funding, and pooling the resources of local councils to form the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which is now at the epicentre of the Northern Powerhouse agenda.
“Perhaps his greatest legacy is the deep and shared belief that we can do more in partnership than by working separately,” says Chris Oglesby, chief executive of property developer Bruntwood. “He forged the Manchester family – a habit of making common cause which works across all parts of both the public and the private sector.
“That way of working is deep in the city’s DNA, lies behind its greatest achievements, and will be the key to its continued success.”
Since Sir Bernstein helped Greater Manchester become a combined authority in 2011, the city region has benefitted to the tune of £1 billion in government funding and acquired devolved powers over skills, transport and housing to reduce its dependence on Whitehall.
More recently, the outgoing chief executive had a hand in securing a devolution agreement with the NHS for the £6bn health and social care budget – a ground-breaking experiment which could relieve pressure on the overstretched health service.
“The true testament to Sir Howard is not just his tenure as chief executive,” says Ken Bishop, director at JLL in the North West, a property consultant who has worked in the industry for more than three decades. “It’s that he has also managed to establish Manchester as a truly European city while pursuing extra-curricular activities at Westminster Council, Blackpool, Manchester City Football Club and most recently leading the task to restructure the NHS in Greater Manchester.”
Sir Bernstein is widely regarded as a star of local government who changed the face of Manchester during his tenure as chief executive – not bad for a Cheetham Hill scarf enthusiast who began his town hall career making cups of tea.
His soon-to-be successor Joanne Roney certainly has her work cut out replicating such success, but Sir Bernstein’s supporters are confident the legacy he will leave behind puts Manchester in good stead to continue on its upward trajectory.
“No doubt the legacy of Sir Howard’s remarkable career will continue,” says Trevor Hankin. “I think this is especially true around his commitment to developing strong relationships between the public and private sectors and the spirit of collaboration he fostered.”