“It would not be right for me as chief executive to walk around this city and only see the exciting tall buildings, and not see the vulnerable people. I need to deal with both.” Such is the balance that Manchester City Council’s chief executive Joanne Roney wants to strike in her new position.
Fresh from Wakefield Council, with a strong background in housing, a month ago today she took over from Sir Howard Bernstein, a man who tightly held the reins as chief executive for 19 years, but was a dominant force in the council for far longer.
The first few weeks have been “a whirlwind” said Roney, of “meeting, greeting, and talking”. Getting under the skin of her new patch, and meeting the key players, has been her priority in what she described as “a full on, but brilliant time so far”.
“It’s been about understanding how the council and the city works,” she said. “I’ve been out in the neighbourhoods to see how we’re connecting with communities. I’ve dealt with everything from a constitutional challenge around the general election announcement and a by-election, to a Spice epidemic hitting the city centre and responding to that with partners.”
Big city vibe
As a new resident of Manchester, there have been some clear first impressions.
“You can’t fail to be impressed by the cultural offer here, and the scale of regeneration that’s taking place. It’s the ‘vibe’ of the city, and I really feel that. But equally you wouldn’t walk around this city being blind to some of the challenges, such as litter, homelessness, begging, and Spice; a particularly high visibility on that.
“Clearly one of the things I wanted to do early on was establish how we’re working with partners to tackle some of those issues, which are not unique to Manchester. They are ‘big city’ issues.”
Roney joined Manchester at a key time for the city; the first Metro Mayor is due to be voted in this week, and depending on who wins could signal a major reworking of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, the draft document which sets targets for growth for the next 30 years.
Roney appears to have a strong grasp of the numbers involved: “With any spatial framework there are challenges, but what we have to be clear about here is, the population of Manchester is set to grow to 600,000, we’re creating 43,000 extra jobs. This is about creating prosperity from which people will benefit, and in order to do that we have to solve the residential side of population growth and changing work patterns.
“We have 3,000 homes on site, and the plan is to achieve 5,000 by year end, across some huge schemes… The housing agenda in Manchester is very alive and significant, it’s as buoyant as the commercial regeneration agenda.”
Balancing both large-scale priorities, and the needs of individuals, defines Roney’s approach to her new role: “We want to look at how we can make individuals more reliant and confident about their own futures. The goal is to make sure schools are good, our streets are cleaner, get our services right, and continue economic growth. I want to sustain the success; the huge levels of regeneration, the big complicated schemes, and see them over the line, but also ensure the residents of the city are benefiting from this growth.”
Does she think Manchester’s regeneration has been geared towards benefiting the few rather than the many?
“We’ve been in a recession. If you look at what Manchester has achieved in a complicated economic set of circumstances, there’s a track record to be incredibly proud of. The trick now is to build on that economic success. I don’t think it’s only benefited a few, but it needs to benefit more.”
The Metro Mayor is just one of many senior figures Roney will be working alongside. After Bernstein’s departure, his role was split in two; Roney’s council chief executive role, and a newly created position, chief executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, taken by former Stockport Council chief executive Eamonn Boylan.
Roney put it succinctly: “There are new players on the pitch, but it’s not altered the team ambition.”
“Eamonn and I will be seeing a lot of each other. We’ve known each other for many years [Roney took over from Boylan as director of housing at Sheffield City Council in 1999]. I come here joining a strong team, we’re clear about the mutual success of Manchester and Greater Manchester.”
There’s a lot to get on with: seeking international investment, driving the growth agenda, securing further devolved powers from the Government. With such a big agenda, Roney was clear about ensuring that the right people do the right job.
“I’ll be talking with Eamonn about who is the right person to go where,” Roney said, although she was quick to reassure: “I’ll be wining and dining the investors when I need to.”
“Plus we’ll continue to push for a strong voice on future devolution, which I’m sure Sir Richard Leese will do. That’s the leader’s job.”
Bernstein was well known by the development community, and could be a vocal advocate of projects in the city. Does Roney plan to follow in Bernstein’s footsteps?
“I’m the chief executive of Manchester, so any developments happening in Manchester I expect to be very involved with. My door will be as open to developers as it’s been previously.”
Roney isn’t new to complex, and controversial, developments. The office in Manchester Town Hall has been stripped of Bernstein’s football memorabilia, and left relatively plain, save for a picture on the wall of the £25m Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, a project Roney oversaw. According to Roney, the photo is “my inspiration, and a reminder that I can deliver complicated regeneration projects that everyone hates until they’re built.”
Would such a principle apply to some of Manchester’s more unpopular projects, for instance St Michael’s?
Roney was firm: “St Michael’s has to go through a process, there are challenges with development and different opinions. My job is to say we have an anticipated population growth, and we need to be providing places for people to live in, and ensure Manchester remains a successful city.”
While Bernstein was a big character, Roney was confident that she wouldn’t be stuck in the shadow of her predecessor.
“We’re different people, operating at a different time with a different set of priorities. I loved his advice to me, which was ‘just carry on’, and just carry on is what I’ll do. I’m not any different to Sir Howard in my passion and ambition for this city.”
Of course, there are some distinguishing features: “I don’t smoke cigars, and Sir Howard doesn’t wear leopard print shoes.” Thank goodness.