Analysis: Can Bernstein weave his magic in Liverpool?

Sir Howard Bernstein played a key role in Manchester’s transformation into an economic powerhouse – can he now inspire Liverpool to similar heights. Tony McDonough reports

Sir Howard Bernstein
Sir Howard Bernstein is to offer Liverpool a helping hand. Picture by Tony McDonough


Last week ended with another chapter in the now all-too-familiar story of Liverpool’s catastrophic failure of governance.

2020 ended with police arrests (but to date no charges) and early in 2021 the Max Caller report into the running of the city council identified a “fundamental failure of governance”. Government commissioners swooped in to take over three council departments.

Although the commissioners made some progress, early 2022 offered up more calamity. A series of errors over the renewal of the council’s electricity contract could end up costing the city £16m. It has already cost former chief executive Tony Reeves his job.

Last Friday the mood darkened further. A new report from the commissioners said not enough progress had been made in turning the three departments – property, regeneration and highways – around. 

This prompted Levelling Up Secretary Greg Clark to say Government control over the council was to be extended. This means Whitehall is effectively taking full control. On the same day, the council announced the former chief executive at Trafford Council. Theresa Grant, would take over as interim chief executive.

However, the most eye-catching announcement was the setting up of a new Liverpool Strategic Futures Advisory Panel. Led by city region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram it will advise current Liverpool Mayor Joanne Anderson on the council’s long-term strategy.

Mr Rotheram attempted to expand on this vague remit by saying: “We aren’t being asked to take control of the council or the running of its day-to-day activities… we will be setting the strategic plans and priorities for our area locally.”

A yet to be named “experienced business leader” will also sit on the panel which will also include Baroness Judith Blake, former leader of Leeds City Council. And it was the third name on the panel which prompted the most excitement – Sir Howard Bernstein.

Economic powerhouse

Sir Howard’s tenure as chief executive of Manchester City Council from 1996 to 2017 is now seen as a masterclass in urban renaissance. He took a city, devastated by an IRA bomb, and transformed it into an economic powerhouse that now can legitimately challenge Birmingham’s status as Britain’s second city.

Liverpool has enjoyed its own more modest economic renaissance over the past two decades. However, now it feels stuck-in-the-mud. The extent of Sir Howard’s role on the panel isn’t yet totally clear. However, his knowledge and expertise could provide the spark to get the city back on track.

Growing up in Cheetham Hill, the then plain Howard made a somewhat inauspicious start to his career in local government. He joined Manchester City Council as an 18-year-old office junior in 1971 on a salary of £500 a year. There was little sign then of what was to come.

He told the Manchester Evening News: “I saw working in the town hall as an interesting prospect. My first job was being given a big bowl of cups and being told to go and wash them. Which was a bit of a culture shock, because I’d never washed anything in my life.”

However by the late 1980s he was already making his mark. He was involved in the setting up of the Manchester Airports Group, now owner of Manchester, East Midlands and Stansted airports. It brought together Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities in a great spirit of cooperation. 

In 1990 he became deputy chief executive of Manchester City Council. He championed the Manchester Metrolink system. When it opened it became the first light rail network to be built in a British city in more than a century.

Rebirth after the bomb

It was in 1996 that Sir Howard took on the biggest challenge of his career. On Saturday, June 15, that year, the IRA planted a 3,300lb bomb in Corporation Street in the city centre. It caused £700m of damage and injured 212 people. Mercifully, no one was killed.

But the impact on the city was devastating. Sir Howard was appointed chief executive of the authority shortly afterwards and wasted little time in putting the city on the road to recovery. 

Building a formidable partnership with elected council leader, Sir Richard Leese, he oversaw the extensive reconstruction of the city centre. He also became chief executive of Manchester Millennium, a public/private sector task force. It delivered projects such as Piccadilly Gardens, Exchange Square and New Cathedral Street.

Well into the 21st century Sir Howard continued to blaze a trail. He was credited with the reform of healthcare in Greater Manchester. And it was the relationships he forged with Whitehall that proved instrumental in Greater Manchester’s devolution deal. It was signed in 2014 and is more extensive than the deal won by Liverpool city region.

He worked very closely with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who was effusive in his praise of the Mancunian. Mr Osborne described Sir Howard as “brilliant”.

And he added: “I have worked with lots of very clever civil servants in Whitehall and come across lots of officials in local government. But he is one of the very, very best public servants I’ve ever come across.

“I just think in lots of different ways he’s the star of British local government. Frankly I can’t think of anyone who comes close to him.”


Sir Howard Bernstein
Sir Howard Bernstein started at Manchester City Council as an office junior. Picture by Tony McDonough
Liverpool city centre and waterfront
Liverpool has suffered a ‘failure of governance’ and is now stuck in a rut


Man of vision

Sir Howard is also not short of admirers at this end of the M62. Speaking on Friday, Frank McKenna, chief executive of Liverpool business lobby group, Downtown in Business, said: “He (Sir Howard) has an ability to see things that nobody else sees, long before it becomes obvious to everyone else.

“He has that kind of vision and I think that’s what we need. I think we’ve too often settled for mediocre, both around some of the developments that have been allowed to take place, but also in having the ambition.

“We haven’t been ambitious enough to go and get some of the big names into the city, and be bold and a bit more courageous in thinking of ways to do that.”

It is hoped Sir Howard will weigh on projects that could help drive the Liverpool city region economy, namely the proposed new £50m cruise terminal and an expansion of the airport.

Liverpool was full steam ahead on the cruise terminal pre-pandemic but is now dithering on whether or not to go ahead. There are concerns about the health of the global cruise market. But figures have shown the sector has rebounded strongly in 2022.

Many on the city council are also cool on expansion of Liverpool John Lennon Airport. They cite concerns over climate change, despite aviation accounting for just 2% of global carbon emissions.

However, this may be a short-sighted approach. Global connectivity provided by airports is a proven driver of inward investment. Liverpool Airport is to play a central role in the new Liverpool City Region Freeport which will have decarbonisation at the heart of its agenda.

And, perhaps Sir Howard can utilise his Whitehall connections to help Steve Rotheram push forward with his £7bn plan to generate electricity from the power of the River Mersey tides. As academic Professor Michael Parkinson said earlier this month – Liverpool has great potential, it just needs to make the right decisions.

Frank McKenna added: “You’ve got to have the vision, but equally you’ve got to have that ballsyness to put your chest out and say ‘we’re Liverpool, we do deserve the best. Mediocre isn’t good enough for us anymore’.”

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