The c’llr interview: Sir Richard Leese

As leader of Manchester City Council for the past 16 years Sir Richard Leese has been a central figure in the city’s revival. He was first elected to the city council in 1984 and held posts on both the education and finance committees before taking the helm as leader in May 1996.

Just weeks later on 15 June a massive bomb exploded in the city centre causing a huge amount of damage to the busy shopping area close to the Arndale Centre. Hundreds of people were injured in the Provisional IRA attack, but fortunately nobody was killed. The bomb devastated the city and caused hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage.

“It’s certainly had a long-lasting effect. It was not only pivotal it was very traumatic, so yes it has had a long-term effect in all sorts of ways,” says Sir Richard. As leader it fell to Sir Richard to help make the decisions that would shape Manchester’s future. He says the process was made easier because of structures already established in the city, adding that a clear action plan was decided on early.

“The important thing about the bomb was that in many respects Manchester already had the people and partnerships in place and the creativity to allow us to respond to that very, very rapidly in the way that we did. Clearly for the first year of my leadership that was it. Dealing with that. It was very significant. But the approach that we took was pretty well already enshrined in the ways of working within the city.

“The decision taken, almost within two days, was that we weren’t simply just going to rebuild. We were going to look at doing things that were different, but certainly a vast improvement on what was there previously.”

Today Manchester’s city centre is a shining example of modernity and vivacity because the council chose to look for the positives. That belief that the bombing could represent more than an act of terrorism and could instead be an opportunity has stayed with Sir Richard and Manchester City Council.

Fast forward to December 2008 and the failure to secure support for a congestion charge in and around Manchester as part of the government’s Transport Innovation Fund. Designed to release £2.7bn of funding through grants and loans for a package of transport measures for Greater Manchester, the deal rested on the people of Manchester voting in favour of introducing a congestion charge. The charge was to be used to pay interest on the loan.

There was cross party support for Transport Innovation Fund in the form of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. Ten local authorities, including Manchester City Council, make up the AGMA, but despite the political support local residents could not be won over. The referendum saw four to one vote against the plans.

As with the 1996 bomb some good has come from the failure in the referendum. Greater Manchester has just become the first area to benefit from the Government’s new City Deals. “Clearly there was an overwhelming vote against and we listened to what people said. We didn’t go ahead with it, but we said ‘OK, let’s make something of this now. Let’s do something’.

“That’s a very consistent attitude, going back 16 years to the bomb, but it’s still true now. Whatever is thrown at us we turn into opportunity and we make something of it.’ The work that went into the Transport Innovation Fund has not been wasted and is now being put to good use. Sir Richard explains: “A lot of benefits came out of the work we did on the Transport Innovation Fund – not least because it gave us the money to develop a whole range of major transport schemes to the level where they could get Department of Transport and treasury approval.

“After the referendum, it meant we could take those worked-up schemes and use them as the basis for what is now the Greater Manchester Transport Fund.”

That fund will see around £2bn invested in local and regional transport infrastructure on the back of AGMA investment. This time the 10 local councils are funding their contribution through council tax and Sir Richard believes if that choice had been open to them in 2008 the referendum may have been different.

He said his preferred position would have been to hold a referendum that offered a choice – either paying through council tax or via a congestion charge. However the Government imposed a question that did not include alternative charging models and Sir Richard said: “I think it would have been better to be in a position to give people a choice of that sort rather than a one-off, take it or leave it. We were put in that position by central government. We had no choice over that ourselves.”

The new City Deal sees a new level of locally devolved power and Sir Richard says this is something that will be increasingly common, no matter which party is in power centrally. He says: “Just before the last general election we were very close to having done a very similar deal with the Labour government. I think certainly a number of leading ministers, not least the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chief Secretary at that time, were absolutely convinced that the best route to promote growth was to have devolution, particularly to the major cities and city regions.

“Those arguments have been won. I don’t think, whether it’s the current government or the Labour Party, there is anybody who doesn’t recognise that if we’re going to get the sort of growth we need, it is going to be the major cities that drive it. And for them to drive that they are going to need the tools to be able to do so. That’s the direction we’re moving and I don’t think we’re going to move backwards, whoever is in government.”

Sir Richard not only sees a role for Manchester in helping to grow the UK economy, there is a very real place for the city on the world stage. The City Deal will see support for new technology businesses that can be at the forefront of their fields. Not least among these is research and development of graphene as viable industry. Manchester University is a world leader in grapheme research and the next phase of that is realising the potential of the material that has been hailed as ‘wonder material of the 21st Century’. The potential of grapheme mirrors Manchester’s potential as a national and global power – the key in both cases is how to turn potential into real-world benefits.

Manchester already has worldwide recognition going for it, according to Sir Richard. Two of the biggest football teams in the game combined with Manchester’s recent history of hosting cultural and sporting events help. Sir Richard was in charge when the Commonwealth Games were secured for the city and he understands the opportunities a well-recognised brand can bring.

He said: “[Football] opens doors, so it helps yes. It means there is virtually nowhere in the world we would go to where there is not some sort of knowledge of Manchester as a place – even if it is only through the football clubs. To use a metaphor from another sport, it gets us to first base but then clearly the football clubs on their own do not turn into business links. We have to use the doors that clubs open to develop trade links with potential partners in different parts of the world.

“There is very clearly a Manchester brand. The city has characteristics that are part of that Manchester brand. Some of the things we do, not just the football, but other sporting events we host, the Manchester International festival, are all concerned with maintaining that brand.”

Recognising strengths is one thing, but it is also important to know where things are not working. In 2009 the Greater Manchester Economic Review was published. Sir Richard says: “That was steered by a very, very prominent group of economists and it identified that Manchester, of all the UK cities, alongside London had the biggest potential for growth and growth of global significance.

“It also identified areas of weakness. Things that we would have to overcome if we were to achieve that. So we now we have a Greater Manchester strategy which is both building on the very real strengths, but also addressing the weaknesses.

“One of those weaknesses was that not enough Manchester companies do trade internationally, so we now have a programme about promoting the city internationally; about getting more companies to trade internationally. Building those international links is a very, very important element of our forward strategy.”

Rob Green is a freelance journalist.

This interview first appeared in c’llr magazine June 2012.