Tributes paid to legend of local government Sir Howard Bernstein

Sir Howard Bernstein

Manchester’s most influential civic leader has sadly died at the age of 71.

The tributes to Sir Howard Bernstein have poured in for a man who more than anyone else shaped the modern Manchester, and was such a catalyst for the reshaping of devolved regional government in the regions of England, even after he retired from the City Council chief executive role in 2017.

On the tenth anniversary of George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse speech, which he was such a powerful influence on, his legacy will be felt for an eternity across a city that he devoted his life to.

Not least amongst his many achievement were the long term thinking behind a decision to commit the city to hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2002, which led to a new stadium for Manchester City Football Club, then using his own international connections, the attraction of investment from the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund. A move that has changed football as we know it, and contributed to driving the city ever forward.

Many have recalled how we was always such a fascinating person to listen to. His vision, his work rate and his sheer determination to push Manchester ever onwards were unstinting.

All of the accolades that came his way at the time of his retirement in 2017 were fully deserved, including a special lifetime achievement award from

Council Leader Cllr Bev Craig led the tributes, following confirmation of his passing by his family, when she said: “Sir Howard served Manchester with remarkable distinction. He will be remembered as a driving force in the city’s turnaround from post-industrial decline to the growing, confident and forward-looking city we see today.

“He had boundless energy, strategic vision and a passion for Manchester. In 46 years at the Council, serving as chief executive between 1998 and 2017, he played an integral role in the regeneration and economic growth of the city, from the city centre’s resurgence after the 1996 IRA bomb and the 2002 Commonwealth Games and transformation of East Manchester to the creation and extension of Metrolink.

“He was also integral in the establishment of strong working relationships between the 10 Greater Manchester councils, culminating in the establishment of Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011 and a series of historic devolution agreements which transferred power and resources away from Westminster and Whitehall to our region.

“He leaves an incredible legacy in the transformation of the city.

“Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time.”

I’ve interviewed him before in front of an audience on a few occasions, and done a couple of sit down profile interviews. One was just ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2002, one of his greatest triumphs. The other was weeks before the referenda on a congestion charge in 2008, one of his rare defeats.

On a personal level, I always valued his insights and his wisdom, and cherished the moments when he invited me in for a chat – “come in for a cup of tea, lad” – he would say, and share his views and sometimes complain about something I’d written that he didn’t like.

His old office was always full of cues and reminders, awards on the mantelpiece, a framed City shirt, two seats from the old stadium and a firm sense that this was his habitat. The same also applied when we’d have lunch at Wings, surrounded by signed plates of Manchester’s great and the good and plenty of passing friends.

I last properly interviewed him for the Manchester Metropolitan University magazine Met Mag, when he was working out of the offices of Deloitte, where it was less of his space, but he was photographed in his trademark scarf and had that familiar whiff of cologne.

Always a great connector of people, in 2021, when I was looking for a new job, we had a long chat over our shared history and he said ‘leave it with me’. Shortly after, Elise Wilson the leader of Stockport Council contacted me to say that Howard thought she needed my help. It was a generous and typically Howard thing to do, moving the agenda forward to help the people who shared his vision for a Greater Manchester.

Of those who worked with him the closest a particularly poignant tribute came from recent Deloitte colleague Simon Bedford who spoke of how he graduated from being called “lad”, “mate”, to then “Simon”. He was one of many people who spoke of “SHB” as a mentor and guide.

Many tributes also noted his capacity for “sheer hard work” including from the Bruntwood CEO Chris Oglesby, who’s father, the late Michael Oglesby was a close ally, who also noted his “commitment to strategy, belief in collaboration” which left many with a “personal sense of obligation” to continue ensure his legacy continues to live on.

Many in the Manchester property world recalled his presence at the international property conference and exhibition MIPIM, where he would operate like the sun king, surrounded by acolytes who were there to push the Manchester message in a highly successful way to an international audience.

Amongst them was former footballer Gary Neville who described the mentoring he received from Sir Howard, and likened his influence on his life in business to that of Sir Alex Ferguson on his football career.

Many also recalled how he would build close networks of the willing around his office in the Town Hall, drawing in anyone who shared his vision and was capable of delivering it for the good of the city. 

Two people who would be comfortably counted as members of that inner web – Manchester LEP chairs Mike Blackburn and Lou Cordwell – described him as “that rarest of visionaries, tirelessly and patiently” driving his long term masterplan for Manchester over many decades.

Commenting on Sir Howard’s incredible contribution and legacy, Manchester City Chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, said: “Sir Howard Bernstein’s contribution and dedication to the city of Manchester throughout his life cannot be overstated. His vision and foresight to use sports-led regeneration to reinvigorate the city was unquestionably the catalyst which set Manchester on the path to becoming the successful city that it is today.

“His love for football and his passion for Manchester City in particular, was clear for all to see. The Club has valued his guidance over many years, allowing it to support the continuation of his drive to revitalise East Manchester, and further develop the Etihad Campus.

“Upon his passing, the many people who have worked with Sir Howard and valued his friendship will reflect on his incredible life of public service. There can be no doubt that Manchester’s status as a leading post-industrial city is, in large part, attributable to Sir Howard.

“His family, friends and all who knew him can rightly be proud of his remarkable achievements, and it is beholden on us to continue to build on that legacy.”

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