A hard act to follow: Joanne Roney takes over from Bernstein

As legacies go, you don’t get much bigger than that of Sir Howard Bernstein.

He has been at the helm of Manchester City Council for almost 20 years, during a time of huge transformation sparked by the IRA bomb that destroyed a chunk of the city core in 1996. It was an event that provided the unique opportunity to change the face of the city centre, and Bernstein did that to widespread praise.

He is credited with bringing business and investment from across the world to Manchester and spearheading the ‘northern powerhouse’ agenda.

The development that happened during his tenure earned him praise from the property industry, with which he operated an ‘open-door policy’. But all good things must come to an end and Bernstein announced late last year that he would retire this spring at the age of 63.

Enter Joanne Roney, the current chief executive of Wakefield Council, who will be taking up the mantle in a matter of weeks.

To say that she has big shoes to fill is an understatement. As an outsider, she was not the most widely tipped candidate for the job, with the focus primarily on Wigan chief executive Donna Hall and Stockport chief executive Eamonn Boylan.

So what does she need to do to get the property industry on side and ensure the city’s wave of development continues? And what challenges will she face?

Altered priorities

Although Roney will take on the same job in name, the role is very different to Bernstein’s. First, the chief executive will no longer also be head of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), the regional body that takes in the Manchester city region and nine other councils. That job will now be taken by Boylan.

Some say that this narrower focus will enable Roney to take on more of a traditional council chief executive role, similar to the one she has held at Wakefield for nearly a decade. But it could also mean the expectations of what she can deliver in the city centre will be higher.

“With Manchester City Council now poised to be more of a cheerleader for the city centre and inner suburbs within Greater Manchester, she will be challenged not only with continuing to attract developers, but also ensuring the city’s infrastructure and services can catch up and keep up with the pace,” says Ian Cody, asset management director at Hermes Real Estate Investment Management, which is developing the city’s 20-acre NOMA mixed-use scheme along with the Co-op.

Another difference between Roney’s and Bernstein’s roles is that she will have to work alongside the new mayor for Greater Manchester, who will be elected in May (the current favourite is Labour’s Andy Burnham).

“Once there is an elected mayor in place, the chief executive of the GMCA and the mayor will need to work collaboratively on planning and development, so one of the key relationships that she [Roney] needs to forge is with Eamonn Boylan,” says Stephen Morgan-Hyland, planning director at planning firm Lichfields.

This relationship is crucial as collaboration across and within regions is a key tenet of the northern powerhouse agenda - something the pair will now be driving forward in Bernstein’s place.

“Her day job is to make sure Manchester is thriving, but she will still have to work closely with other local authorities,” says Alex Russell, director at developer Property Alliance Group.

In this respect, Roney’s arrival from “the other side of the Pennines” could work to her advantage. “There is an increasingly large group of people who work and think across the northern powerhouse and the principal cities in the north,” says Andrew McFarlane, director and head of the North West at Colliers - and she will already have connections in place to facilitate this.

Juggling act

The level of development during Bernstein’s 20-year tenure was such that it is inevitable Roney’s job will include an element of ‘carrying on the good work’.

“She will be inheriting something that isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing - she’ll just need to spin the plates,” says McFarlane.

But with so many large and significant projects currently under way, Roney will still need to engage with the industry to ensure these are delivered successfully and keep on top of transport and the public realm to make sure these new districts are accessible and attractive.

She will be inheriting something that isn’t broken and doesn’t need fixing - she’ll just need to spin the plates - Andrew McFarlane, Colliers

Stephen Bell, senior director and head of the Manchester office at planning consultancy Turley, says that “grasping the full potential” of the next wave of development sites, including Allied London’s St John’s, U+I’s Mayfield and the North Campus centred around the University of Manchester, will be vital.

“Sir Howard oversaw the transformation of the city centre and the creation of hugely successful new quarters,” he says. “For the city to continue to compete, it must make the most of these rare opportunities.”

Relevant background

Roney does have some experience in the commercial property arena. In Wakefield, she was credited with rescuing the Trinity Walk Shopping Centre development when Anglo Irish Bank withdrew its funding during the recession.

It was bought by Sovereign Land, AREA Property Partners and Shepherd Construction in 2010 and opened the following year. However, Jeremy Hinds, director of retail planning at Savills in Manchester, says this was driven by circumstance rather than a burning desire to get involved with property projects.

“She brokered the Trinity Walk deal on the basis of its strategic importance for the city. She would not have done that had funding not collapsed,” says Hinds, adding: “Her engagement with property has been extracting value from it to spend on other priorities, which, if she continues that in Manchester, would be a twist on what Bernstein and [council leader Sir Richard] Leese have done.”

It is predicted that Roney’s main focus will be on frontline public services. The main criticism that has been levelled at Bernstein is that while the city has evolved in many ways, the delivery of basic council services is still lacking.

Because of this, part of Roney’s new job will be to reform the region’s healthcare system - a task that Ken Bishop, development consultant at JLL in Manchester, describes as “a full-time job in its own right” - as well as improving education.

Where Roney could achieve real results is by intertwining these social objectives with the city’s development to create a broader success story. “The city’s talent pool needs to grow to ensure it continues to attract inward investment,” says Bishop.

“Given the property market’s buoyancy and the regeneration initiatives already in place, there are more gains to be made from the less glamorous areas of the council’s agenda than from headline-grabbing development announcements - exciting though they are.”

Keep it local

This investment in the region’s assets could also feed into the all-important northern powerhouse agenda.

“If she had a development plan that focused on achievement, wealth creation and inclusivity so we had a city where people could get good education at all levels and achieve their career ambitions while staying local to Manchester and the northern powerhouse, that would be great,” says Hinds.

With housing roles at Kirklees and Sheffield councils under her belt, improving the city’s residential provision is likely to be another key area of focus. Historically, there has been little housing in Manchester city centre, but as employment opportunities have increased developers have begun to play catch-up.

“There needs to be a step-change in the approach that’s taken towards bringing sites forward [for housing] because there is a significant backlog,” says Morgan-Hyland.

“Ensuring the right environment is in place to allow the development community to bring forward provision to meet needs is an area where Joanne could achieve great success.”

There needs to be a step-change towards bringing sites forward [for housing] because there is a significant backlog - Stephen Morgan-Hyland, Lichfields

But, as in any rapidly developing city, there is a risk that quality could deteriorate, and developers are urging Roney to keep one eye on the cityscape. “There seem to be a few lower-quality [residential] towers that have cropped up that won’t look as great in 10 or 15 years,” says Russell. “There is definitely room for more towers, but making sure those that go up are of higher quality and are not just a quick-fire reaction to demand will be important.”

Striking the right balance between affordable and social housing and the high-end apartments that characterise the city centre will also be critical. “She might want that [social housing] agenda but Manchester can’t afford to forsake its driving force, which is high-end property,” says Hinds, adding that delivering a social housing agenda is likely to be “more difficult than it might look”.

Public realm is another area that could do with some improvement. Despite the billions poured into regenerating large chunks of the city centre in recent years, it is still one of the UK’s least green major cities and remains without a significant public park. “Manchester is still not a city of great spaces,” says Bell. “The public realm, its maintenance and the contribution it makes to value and liveability should be firmly on the new chief executive’s agenda.”

Bonding time

Warwick Smither, partner at Manchester agent Cheetham & Mortimer, says Bernstein regularly “had to bang heads together among the business community and, perhaps more importantly, those with property interests, to ensure delivery of the ‘masterplan’ for the city”.

Whether Roney is successful or not will hinge largely on her ability to forge bonds with Manchester’s property community. “What will be vital and will come under the most scrutiny is Joanne’s relationships with major developers and investors in the region,” says Hermes’ Cody.

Bernstein took this seriously, regularly appearing at industry events such as Mipim as well as being accessible to developers and agents behind closed doors. “If a big international investor wanted to sit in front of the decision-maker, Howard always had an open-door policy,” says James Evans, head of Savills’ Manchester office.

It was an approach that extended to the investors themselves. Bernstein and former chancellor George Osborne secured a visit to Manchester from the Chinese premier in 2015, and the Manchester China Forum was also launched under his tenure. “Howard has done fantastically well at promoting Manchester to places like the US and China, and I’m sure that’s on Roney’s agenda,” says Russell.

The city is willing to give her a chance. “We shouldn’t expect anyone taking over his [Bernstein’s] role to recreate overnight the support system and extensive network of contacts he has established over two decades,” says Bishop.

It is far from an easy job and one that will require careful juggling of a range of different interests and priorities. But the reward - having the chance to shape the future of one of the UK’s fastest-growing cities at a crucial point in its evolution - is great.

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