Joanne Roney OBE reflects on Manchester’s undaunted ambition

Thursday, 5th March 2020

On Wednesday 4th March, Manchester’s leading professionals came to the Midland Hotel to hear from Joanne Roney OBE.

Sam Booth, Chief Executive of pro-manchester, opened the event by thanking headline sponsors, Together, for their continued support and welcomed Joanne to the stage.

Joanne has held the role of Chief Executive of Manchester City Council for three years and is pleased to see the undaunted ambition of Manchester remains unchanged. The 2016 strategy was for Manchester to be a world class city by 2025 and we are on track with this. Key focuses in the industrial strategy include the sciences, manufacturing, culture, fintech and professional services.

She works closely with the wider region and GM Mayor Andy Burnham. The city is the economic powerhouse of the region with 25% of all new housing required here and around 50% of the commercial development. The success of the city has a knock on impact for the whole region.

Joanne offered updates on a few of the high profile projects underway:

• The Mayfield project has attracted £1.4bn investment. It is running slightly behind, due to delays with HS2 (though she is hopeful for a positive announcement next week). It will include the first new park in city centre and marks a change in development to be more placemaking focused. There are now 50,000 people living in city centre and that is expected to double within 5 years. The public realm needs to be invested in alongside housing.

• Angel Meadows, described as the green lung of the city, will see the development of 15,000 new family homes. They will be connected to the rest of the city with the new walking and cycling routes.

• The Oxford Road Corridor Innovation District has been hugely successful. The Council is working with the universities to develop advance materials and then get them into the market and commercialise.

The main challenges, Joanne says, is to keep growth sustainable and place based. We have some of the poorest health outcomes in the country. Over 50s are less likely to employed and have not been upskilled to take advantage of the new jobs being created. This in turn leads to poorer health. Businesses can help by working to recruit and upskill staff, and the GMCA is lobbying for further devolved funding.

Manchester has a targeted itself to be zero carbon by 2038 but Joanne warns against being overly focused on that as it will alter based on scientific research. The main aim must remain to be keep reducing by 50% over next 5 years. An essential element of this is getting the transport and infrastructure links right to reduce dependency on car use. The Clean Air Zone will address the levels of pollution – which is currently responsible for 1,300 premature deaths a year in Greater Manchester.

Joanne also shared that there is a 20% weighting on social value in all Council contracts. Out of every £1 spent, 25 pence goes directly back into the economy. She is working hard on the supply chain to push social value and inclusive growth at every stage.

Sam started the Q&A off with the issue we can’t ignore… the spread of Coronavirus or COVID-19. Joanne is currently working closely with regional and national representatives to monitor the situation. It is fair to say it has not peaked yet and is expected that more people will contract it. The main focus is to speed up the testing process as this is currently taking around a week and will have a huge impact on businesses if large numbers of employees are self-isolating. We’re not at the stage of cancelling events but completely understand that it will be difficult for events such as MIPIM, with global attendees, to go ahead.

Moving on to happier topics, Sam asked Joanne for her proudest achievements since taking office. These included: continued economic growth; development of Factory (Manchester’s answer to the Sydney Opera House) due to open in 2022; the Town Hall refurbishment and planned redevelopments of Albert Square and Piccadilly; and the Council being included on the Best Companies list.

Joanne believes her appointment came as a bit of a shock; she is the first woman in the role and also not from the region. Construction and regeneration are male dominated industries and there was scepticism that a woman would focus on these areas, as opposed to on the “soft” issues, such as schools and social services. Joanne is proud that she has succeeded across all those areas.

Equality, diversity and inclusion is high on the agenda for pro-manchester and across the city. Sam asked Joanne for advice on how businesses can tackle these issues. Manchester City Council has a history of strong women, with 50% of elected members being female. It has been regularly shown that businesses with a gender balance at the top are more productive. The challenge, Joanne says, is in the wider diversity. People from a BAME background are under-represented both in local government and in professional services. Addressing this issue must start right from school and Joanne is pleased to share that GMACS launched two weeks ago. This website helps young people to map out their potential careers and also allows employers to post opportunities for work shadowing and placements. All businesses are encouraged to use the site and connect with young people in the region.

Joanne is the lead for skills for Greater Manchester and Sam asked for an update on the agenda and priorities. Again, she is lobby for further devolved funding for adult education and upskilling. Preparing the next generation is the responsibility of businesses as well as schools and universities.

Sam then opened up questions to the floor.

Joanne was first asked about her preconceptions of the role and any surprises – good or bad – that she found. She was shocked by the visibility of homelessness when she first came to Manchester and has seen a huge increase in support and attention over the last three years. The state of the roads was also poor and the Highways Improvement programme was one of her first tasks. Overall, she has learned that we can’t be this amazing, bright, vibrant global city without focusing on getting the basics right.

The timing of her appointment meant that she is the first chief executive to work alongside the new GM Mayor and developing that relationship has been a joy. Both Joanne and Andy Burnham are keen to get out and listen to people and include them in the development of city/regional strategy. Networking events like this are hugely valuable in gaining a better understanding of what individuals and businesses need.

Danny Simpson, MidCommunications, asked what the city vision is for tech, particularly 5G and smart cities. Joanne openly admits we are not yet where we need to be and she has just appointed a new digital infrastructure lead (official announcement to follow). She will also ensure there us additional capacity to support the sector, looking at issues such as supporting scale ups and upskilling so people can take advantage of new jobs in the city.

With the new budget due, Joanne was asked for her predictions. She is hoping it will be positive for large capital investments, with sign off for HS2 and NPR (something Andy Burnham has been consistently demanding) and further investment in housing. However, she does not expect overall revenue to increase which will lead to challenges delivering day-to-day projects and services.

Finally, Alison Loveday, Kennedys, asked whether Manchester’s reputation as a world class city is better internationally than nationally. Joanne has worked in the regions, including Birmingham, who often look to Manchester with an envious eye. We have a reputation as a city that gets stuff done and collaborates across sectors. It is important that, as a region and a country, we also focus on the success of our towns.

Sam closed the event, thanking Joanne for her time, Together for sponsoring, the Midland for hosting and all delegates for attending.