Sir Howard Berstein March cropped, c PNW

Sir Howard Bernstein has left a legacy in Manchester. Here he is at his desk in March 2017. Credit: PNW

Sir Howard Bernstein: Cheetham Hill boy made good

Kennings Garage with Coombes Boot and Shoes on the corner, the Odeon Cinema, the United Synagogue – it is easy to find pictures of Cheetham Hill in the 1950s.

Neat, prosperous, a little conservative even if it voted solidly Labour: Harold Lever won every election the Cheetham constituency ever had. And this was Jewish Labour – Lever was the son of a Lithuanian textile merchant, a very Mancunian combination.

This is the world Sir Howard Bernstein came from. Add the daily bus journey across town from Cheetham Hill to Hulme’s Ducie High School, Lloyd Street – and you have the man. Self-reliant, respectable, reliable, Manchester to his bootstraps, remembering the sense of community in the city he grew up in.

It took Bernstein until he was 39, a couple of decades after he left Ducie for a job at Manchester Town Hall, until he began to put right what he saw on those daily journeys. He started at the far end, in Hulme. Until then a leftist Labour council had specialised in gesture politics – nuclear-free zones and rows with the Thatcher government. Bernstein – with the support of council leader Graham Stringer – took the unusual step of cooperating with government instead. If there was money to be had, he wanted it. Manchester’s bid for a massive regeneration of Hulme won Michael Heseltine’s City Challenge competition in 1992.

It was, in a way, astonishing. The socialist planning of the post-war period was literally erased – the Crescents were demolished, and the buried lines of old roads Bernstein must have known well as a Ducie student, were reinstated. Dead ends were turned into through routes, literally and metaphorically. Instead of one big top-down development, plots were divided – many flowers would be allowed to bloom, including private housing (virtually non-existent in Hulme and Moss Side). And for the first time, a design guide was introduced: things were expected to look and feel good, and to foster a sense of community. Five years and about £400m revived around 110 acres, starting a ball rolling, one that continues to roll, restoring Hulme to its historic place at the scientific and educational heart of city life.

It was obvious long before the 1996 IRA bombing of central Manchester that Bernstein was the coming man. Labour’s local leadership wanted him. Stringer, his finance chief and successor Richard Leese and chief whip Pat Karney, were all contemporaries from versions of the same North Manchester world, and they trusted him. That he was put in charge of the rebuild – promoted over the head of his immediate boss – proved the point.

The rebuild of the city centre has been lavishly praised, and much described; the same goes for the Olympic bids and Commonwealth Games success that advertised progress. There is no need to do it again. The point is that once the city centre was self-propelled, Bernstein’s attention broadened out. Among other things it turned to the rest of that 1960s daily school journey, this time starting at the other northern end.

A rash of initiatives began: the former Monsall Hospital was reclaimed and rebranded: Fujitsu, the police HQ, and now the Sharp Project grew in that soil. Strangeways, too, received attention. Nobody who wasn’t there at the time can understand the effect of the riots, and their aftermath: something in the city changed. When the prison closed for repairs an ambitious regeneration programme began. And up at North Manchester Hospital the groundwork was done for what is likely to be one of the city’s most significant rebuilds.

But what about Cheetham Hill, his home? He never quite got around to that one. Today it is among the least typical wards in a city which itself is not very typical of England or the UK. It is unusually workless – according to the 2021 census 21.2% have never worked or are long-term unemployed. The England figure is 8.5%. Most who work have low-skilled or routine occupations. Today it is not the smart, neat place of the 1950s photographs – although no one could deny its vigour.

Bernstein was largely self-educated, but fortunately, he had a very good teacher. As a Cheetham Hill boy, Bernstein would certainly have known the curious Tudor history of Sir Humphry Chetham, whose land and legacy helped shape the city (and still does). Every day on the route to school he would have passed Chetham’s Library (and the Cathedral next door). It is hard to believe he didn’t know the two astonishing stories associated with the Library’s reading room.

The first holds that Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan magus and alchemist, one day succeeded in conjuring up the devil. Satan appeared, standing, on the reading room table and so hot were his hooves that marks were burned into the surface (the table is still there, go and have a look).

The second is that the very same table was the place where Karl Marx and his collaborator, Hulme resident Fredrick Engels, composed the Communist Manifesto of 1848, a document that changed the world (for good or ill, and whether the world likes it or not).

A maker of magic, and a social reformer with a vision of how a city could look: the two together combined in Howard Bernstein. He was the alchemical creation of the strange, thrilling, dangerous city that made him. He should be remembered first as a son of the city. It is very unlikely Manchester will see his like again.

  • David Thame is analysis editor of Place North

Your Comments

Read our comments policy

An excellent tribute.

By Chris Barry

A lovely tribute to a remarkable man. He combined humility with drive, whilst his quiet but steely authority ensured things got done the way he envisaged it. Manchester is the richer for his life and that bit poorer for his passing. RIP, Sir Howard.

By Dougal Paver

You don’t get them like him in cheetham hill anymore

By Anonymous

An excellent, poignant tribute to a unique, dedicated man – by one who lived through some tempestuous times with him and Stringer.

By Old Hack

Related Articles

Sign up to receive the Place Daily Briefing

Join more than 13,000 property professionals and receive your free daily round-up of built environment news direct to your inbox


Join more than 13,000 property professionals and sign up to receive your free daily round-up of built environment news direct to your inbox.

By subscribing, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

"*" indicates required fields

Your Job Field*
Other regional Publications - select below