The universities of the North of England will push the government to deliver the Northern Powerhouse strategy, according to former Manchester City Council chief executive turned University of Manchester adviser Sir Howard Bernstein, who stresses higher education’s “fundamental” role in the city’s devolution future.
Sir Howard, who is credited with being a driving force in Manchester’s regeneration and recovery from post-industrial decline, spoke to Times Higher Education after taking up a post as honorary professor of politics and part-time adviser on “government interactions, healthcare delivery, devolution, culture and international links” at the University of Manchester earlier this year, following his retirement as council chief executive.
There have been suggestions that Theresa May, the prime minister, has turned away from the Northern Powerhouse strategy, created by George Osborne, the former chancellor whom she ousted from government – which could threaten plans for fast rail links that would connect the North’s cities, universities and researchers.
Sir Howard became chief executive of Manchester City Council in 1998, establishing a powerful pairing with Labour council leader Sir Richard Leese, and from 2011 he was also in effect head of the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which has secured England’s most advanced devolution agreement.
That after joining what was then Manchester Corporation straight from school as a junior clerk in 1971. “I think that if anyone would have believed that I would be a professor – that would have been quite fanciful,” said Sir Howard, who was born and brought up in the Manchester suburb of Cheetham Hill.
As council chief executive, Sir Howard looked at “the most successful city-regional economies in the world”, and it was clear to him that “one of the consistent features is a world-class university at the heart”, he said, singling out Boston and Melbourne as key examples. In his council role, he had “a very strong relationship” with University of Manchester president and vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell and her predecessor, Sir Alan Gilbert.
What role have Manchester’s universities – Manchester Metropolitan University is the other – played in the city’s regeneration?
They have had “a profound influence on our wider international strategy about how Manchester promotes itself internationally, how we develop sectors of global distinction that can attract trade and investment”, Sir Howard said.
More broadly, Manchester had shown that universities were central to “what makes practical, attractive places where people want to live and visit”. He added: “We’re in the throes here [in Manchester] of something very, very special.”
Greater Manchester’s devolution settlement means that it now controls its £6 billion budget for health and social care services. Sir Howard is chair of the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre, a partnership between the University of Manchester and six NHS organisations that conducts research aimed at developing new treatments for patients.
Reducing “the demand for high-dependency services is a fundamental part of our economic strategy” and can be achieved only via devolution of that health and social care budget, Sir Howard said.
Other key areas for development as devolution takes hold are not just in “higher order sectors” such as research – where he singles out advanced materials, energy, life sciences and informatics as the University of Manchester’s distinctive specialisms – but also in skills and getting more people into the labour market. “Intergenerational worklessness” remains “significantly high” in parts of Greater Manchester, Sir Howard said.
“The universities in Manchester are a fundamental part of all of those strands of policy,” he added.
Mr Osborne’s post-politics portfolio career includes an honorary professorship in economics at Manchester. Sir Howard is a long-standing enthusiast for his new colleague’s Northern Powerhouse plan – which includes fast rail links between Manchester and the rest of the North’s major cities.
He said that international examples demonstrate that government investment in transport infrastructure “has synergised labour markets, created more jobs, more investment and allied to a stronger focus on international sectors of growth”.
“We can do that in this country,” Sir Howard said. “What we need is the commitment of national governments to actually deliver: the Northern Powerhouse rail strategy, in particular. That’s why universities, businesses, public sector organisations throughout the North of England will hold the government to account for the delivery of those key priorities.”
Connecting cities will “ensure that the North of England is able to play its fullest part in the new changing global market, which is going to become even more difficult to negotiate after Brexit”, Sir Howard added.
In its devolution settlement and many other fields, Manchester looks streets ahead of England’s other regional cities. Why?
“I can assure you that a lot of people work very hard not just to drive the vision, but even harder to work across political lines, across sectors, in collaborative ways to deliver that vision,” Sir Howard said.
What does he think makes the city special? “It’s a place that has a very clear identity, a place that has a very clear sense of purpose,” he replied.
Manchester’s identity is “a bit edgy – I wouldn’t say that it’s arrogant but there is a self-confidence about it,” Sir Howard added. "And also endeavour – we work hard here.”