Highlights from Lunch with Sir Richard Leese

Thursday, 24th January 2019

Over a hundred Manchester professionals gathered at Bridgewater Hall for pro-manchester’s annual lunch with the Leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese CBE.

After lunch, Alistair Cree, pro-manchester chair welcomed Sir Richard and offered a heartfelt thank you to him for leading the transformation of the city, which has benefitted many businesses in the room.

How is Manchester faring as a city?

Taking to the stage, Sir Richard started with the positives: most notably the performance of the Manchester economy in the last five years. The city has survived the recession well, due in part to the fact that it has a more diverse economy than other regional cities. Previously the big fillers of space were the financial and professional services, but these have been overtaken by tech. In fact, tech now accounts for a third of the space in Manchester and creative employment is also seeing a significant increase. 2016 figures showed 35,000 people are in creative employment in Greater Manchester. More recently, in 2017, TechNation stated there were 57,000 tech jobs in the region. It is worth noting that since those figures were announced as a number of big players – including Amazon, booking.com and GCHQ – have moved into the city. Manchester also has a globally competitive sector for healthcare investment and innovation.

Sir Richard noted that there remains a north/south divide across the city region and that more people need to benefit from the economic growth. Manchester city centre has the most jobs – but also the most deprived communities. Sir Richard recognises the need to seek to change this and announced that the new Local Industrial Strategy will be launched on 8th February. Amongst other key issues, the strategy will address the foundation economy and care sectors.

There is also scope to improve the way employers look at employment and the Good Employment Charter will shortly open for consultation. Anchor employers, such as Manchester City Council and the GMCA, will lead the way by offering the real living wage and fixed hours of work. The private sector is already adopting some of these practices and seeing a great return on productivity.

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is open for consultation and shows broad political agreement for land usage up to 2038. Sir Richard reminded delegates that the framework in itself does nothing: it gives certainty on guidelines but is not development. One of the key points to note is that it requires all building to be zero carbon by 2028.

Investment in infrastructure is high on the agenda, as Manchester seeks to become less car dominated and improve air quality. This requires more active commuting and a better public transport offering. Improvements should be seen in both the train network and through bus reform in 2019. Large scale projects, namely HS2 and Northern Power Rail will improve connectivity with other cities, and new international routes from Manchester Airport will bring long term benefits to the region.

Summing up, Sir Richard quipped, everything is wonderful… apart from Brexit! He believes the consensus is that Brexit on no deal is a bad idea, and, personally thinks Brexit is a bad idea on any terms. Whilst he has no more idea than most what will unfold in the next seven days, Sir Richard believes there is a real chance that Parliament will take control of the process and reconsider all options from no deal to second referendum. We just have to wait and see what happens!

What changes do we need to see in the region?

Alistair kicked off the Q&A section by asking about social housing and what the provision was for local authority housing within these new developments?

Approximately two thirds of housing is in the city centre, with a high proportion of this made up of apartment blocks for those working nearby. This is, in many ways a good thing as it is a sign of economic growth and the improved facilities in the city. However, Sir Richard notes that the impact of austerity is leading to increased poverty and homelessness, with 1,500 families in the region in temporary accommodation. Even if all the long term empty residential units were fit for housing, there would still be a shortfall of properties. Sir Richard believes the answer is to suspend Right to Buy to maintain the current stock and reserve universal credit cuts.

Expanding on the facilities Manchester has to offer, Alistair asked what more can be done to demonstrate the quality of life in the city. Some of this is simply about sharing more facts: Manchester has more tree coverage than most cities and excellent parks. Residents should also be encouraged to explore green spaces around the city region. Sir Richard noted that new developments, such as Mayfield, will include significant green spaces.

Adam Richmond, chair of pro-manchester’s Transport & Infrastructure group and Project Director at CPC Project Services LLP, asked whether a congestion charge was likely, despite being voted down ten years ago. Sir Richard believes the transport innovation fund was a lost opportunity and that we are now more likely to see a penalty regime – with the aim to have no penalties. Dirty vehicles will pay a penalty to persuade people to change to clean vehicles or other modes of transport. He reminded delegates that poor air quality, due mainly to transport emissions, kills 1,200 people every year in Greater Manchester.

Delegates are invited to attend pro-manchester’s Journey to Clean Air event on 31st January.

Leigh Bramall, Counter Context, asked what the next big challenge will be to shape common policy. There are unlikely to be new challenges coming to the front as the region is still delivering on challenges from 15 years ago. Infrastructure projects like HS2, Northern Power Rail and improved road connections to Sheffield have not happened yet. There is lots of work to be done simply to keep the pressure on those investments.

Other significant projects include reviewing the skills and education system, with more control coming to the region. Sir Richard noted that the key age range for unemployment is no longer 18 – 24, but the over 50s. He believes more influence is needed over health, skills and DWP budget to make the necessary changes. Greater Manchester has made more progress with devolution than anywhere else – including London – which makes it quite fragile.

The final question from the floor came from Peter Rowe, Associate Director at Turley. The recent, high profile decision not to go ahead with a planned 50 storey development has people concerned we’ve reached the top of the market. Is that a fair appraisal?

Many planned developments are never completed and there is still a very active market in Manchester. The central retail park scheme was initially intended to be predominantly residential but is likely to be commercial instead. This is a good thing as it shows the city is creating more jobs. It would be dangerous to use one block as an indicator of the market.

Alistair closed the event, once more thanking Sir Richard and all delegates for attending.