Last week I attended the property conference MIPIM UK.
High on the agenda was the Northern Powerhouse, with investors from London and overseas keen to find out more about an initiative that is being driven by Chancellor George Osborne as he attempts to re-balance the UK economy.
There were several forums focussing on the powerhouse, and devolution, with representatives from Liverpool, Yorkshire and the North East all making interesting contributions. However, what became apparent throughout the three day event was that, in reality, for Northern Powerhouse we should read Manchester.
The star performers at MIPIM UK were the city council leader and chief executive from Manchester. And whilst Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle were all able to offer a vision for opportunities in the future, it was Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein who were spelling out deals done, plans afoot, and powers from central government already won. They then, of course, went back home to host a state visit from the President of China – announcing another raft of investment wins.
For someone who operates across the north, and more recently the West Midlands too; and as someone who has known and worked with Manchester’s leadership in one way or another for over twenty years now, none of this is a surprise.
Indeed, in public sector terms, Bernstein is becoming the Elvis of local government. Everywhere I go, private sector leaders ask me if we can get him to speak at a Downtown forum. In Lancashire this week, we have a lunch with Howard that has been fully booked for two months now.
As a political leader, Leese is gaining support from businesses not just to lead Manchester but to head up the North. His speech to a private gathering of delegates from all northern regions on Wednesday evening was so impressive that several Liverpool entrepreneurs were suggesting we need a PM for the north – and Leese is the man for the job.
All this is good news for Manchester; and other core cities can benefit by listening to and learning from Manchester. But does Manchester know how lucky it is?
I sense that over the past twelve months there is a feeling in some parts of the business community that the growth and momentum Manchester is enjoying is inevitable. It isn’t. Political and civic leadership has played a huge part in the city’s sustained success.
The ability of that leadership to develop and maintain partnerships with the private sector has been a key part of the Manchester story. But so too has the council’s ability to develop a relationship with a government of a different political colour for the good of the region.
The skill, pragmatism and experience of Leese and Bernstein should be cherished and celebrated. It won’t be here forever, and it is to be hoped that a better succession plan can be implemented for the leadership change than was the case for Manchester United two seasons ago. Hopefully that problem is a way off yet. In the meantime, Elvis, get your touring gear on!