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The Property's Big Question: Who Will Run Manchester Council When Sir Richard Leese Steps Down?

For more than 20 years Sir Richard Leese has been the leader of Labour-controlled Manchester City Council, winning praise for political stability and his property-friendly policies.

Now Sir Richard has admitted for the first time that his term of office may come to an end as internal rows in the 94-strong group of Labour councillors escalate.

If Sir Richard follows former chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein into retirement, who will succeed him and what will it mean for real estate? Bisnow marks your card.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, September 2017
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council

For two decades the political leadership and direction of Manchester City Council has been regarded by the property industry as an eternal and unchanging fact of life. Sir Richard Leese, leader of the ruling Labour Group since 1996, worked with council chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein to provide the kind of investment-friendly and predictable management the real estate sector needs.

Suddenly that has begun to change. A sudden surge of complaints about the lack of affordable housing in the city centre at a time when the city is seeing a residential building boom has provided sustained criticism for Leese. The most recent dispute was over charging residents for a local parking scheme, but the cause is almost immaterial. The mood in the Labour group of councillors is no longer docile.

The radicalisation of the Labour Party's membership — largely but not entirely through the Corbyn-friendly Momentum movement — has sent shock waves through the Labour councillors group. The old respect for party leaders is gone, as the Manchester Evening News has reported.

The internal dynamics of the Labour group are not easy to read. Meetings are private and what leaks out must always be judged on the "cui bono?" principle. Even so, two names are now regularly mentioned as potential successors: Pat Karney and John Flanagan. Both move in the same North Manchester Labour circles, and both have strong links with the city's Irish community. Both, also have ties with the Leese/Bernstein years.

More distant but still fancied options include deputy council leaders Sue Murphy and Nigel Murphy, and the current cabinet member for schools Luthfur Rahman.

The Property's Big Question: Who Will Run Manchester Council When Sir Richard Leese Steps Down?
Pat Karney, Labour councillor for Harpurhey

Pat Karney

The Labour councillor for Harpurhey has the street skills of a survivor. He was right-hand man to former council leader Graham Stringer (now MP for Blackley and Broughton), serving as chief whip and city-centre supremo. He moved smoothly into the same trusted position when Richard Leese replaced Stringer as council leader in 1996. If anyone is associated with providing the political cover necessary for Bernstein and Leese's city centre development strategy it is Karney.

However, politics is a thankless business and it has not always won him many friends: a Google search will bring up a rich history of controversy. The LGBT community, always sensitive about threats to the future of the suddenly valuable city centre blocks that form the gay village, have an especially furious love-hate relationship with Karney, whom they consider one of their own.  Today he remains lead member for the city centre and chair of the constitutional and nominations committee, which gives him a pivotal and potentially influential role in the future prospects of other ambitious Labour members, an important lever should there be a leadership election. Until now Karney has preferred to be the power behind the throne, but if he threw his name into the undeclared race to succeed Leese, Karney must be the front runner. A Karney leadership would be a roller coaster ride in the media, but the property sector may find policies largely unchanged.

John Flanagan

Labour councillor for Miles Platting, a district on the fringe of the affluent city centre that has, like Harpurhey, largely missed out on the affluence. Flanagan was the council's finance boss (as executive member for finance) from 2014 until May 2018 when he was dropped from leader Leese's executive team. Flanagan has deep roots in the city's Irish community, is a former co-chair of the city's Irish Fesitval with all the contacts that brings, and like Karney has been positioning himself as the voice of disgruntled Labour backbenchers

As finance chief, he presided over budget cuts and salary increases for senior staff, neither popular moves, and is made of strong stuff. If Karney is front runner, Flanagan makes a powerful challenger. 

Like Karney he would probably represent incremental change from the Bernstein/Leese development-friendly approach but expect more robust rhetoric about spreading the benefits of the building boom.

Luthfur Rahman

Not to be confused with the controversial politician of the same name in London's Tower Hamlets. Which is not to say that Manchester's Rahman has not had his controversial moments, but they have not hindered his steady rise up the hierarchy.

He was appointed by Sir Richard as executive member for culture and leisure in May 2016, and in May 2018 rewarded when the schools portfolio was added to his brief. Rahman represents Longsight, a ward south-east of the city centre which, despite proximity to the flourishing student district, remains severely rundown. He was tipped to replace Sir Gerald Kaufman as MP for Manchester Gorton, but was not in the end selected.

Expect a Rahman leadership to focus on extending the benefits of development beyond the city centre, as he has in his cultural brief which has included relocating artists' studios priced out of up-and-coming city centre districts.

Nigel Murphy and Sue Murphy

The two Murphys are deputy leaders to Leese and, on the face of it, well placed to succeed him. Nigel represents the rebuilt district of Hulme, now on the edge of the city centre residential boom which sometimes spills over its borders, and Sue represents the distant Wythenshawe suburb of Brooklands. Sue has been in post for may years, joined by Nigel in 2017 when Bernard Priest was replaced. Both are steady performers with wide experience, but perhaps too close to the existing regime and rather overshadowed by it.