Leaving Manchester City Council after 46 years – 18 of them as chief executive – is reason enough but there are factors that make the timing of Bernstein’s decision to step down all the more understandable.
There is about to be a new start for Greater Manchester governance in May 2017 when the mayoral elections are held. Never a fan of directly elected mayors, Bernstein faced the prospect of a massive collision of power with the incoming mayor, who will have the kind of democratic mandate that rocks the boat of the officer-led technocracy Bernstein has steered for decades. Effectively, there will be a new boss and the roles of everyone at the top of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will change. If elected as predicted, Andy Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh, a central government rather than a local government player, is expected to stamp his own authority on matters, including the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, the planning blueprint that he will have a crucial vote on.
One contact close to the city’s inner circle said Bernstein considered leaving two years ago but the devolution deal with government and in particular taking over the £6bn health and social care budget, needed to be established first.
Working with prime minister Theresa May and chancellor Philip Hammond is another challenge only just beginning to be understood. Bernstein was close to the last chancellor George Osborne, and secured numerous government handouts when Greater Manchester became the leading city region in the Northern Powerhouse movement but those sorts of days appear to be numbered, as May talks of widening scope to the Midlands and elsewhere.
“Manchester faces a critical point, and there will be a fresh start next spring,” said one senior figure at GMCA, “and it could be that Bernstein felt it needed someone who wants to be around for another five years to take all that on.”
Given their strong working partnership over the past two decades, many had hypothesised that Bernstein and Manchester City Council leader Cllr Sir Richard Leese would step down together. Rumours have already begun as to whether Leese will decide to go when his current term ends in 2018, giving him a year to settle and establish the new elected mayor.