Beyond his close circle of friends and family, news of Sir Howard Bernstein’s death on Saturday was as shocking as it was devastating.

The man who single-handedly did more than anyone else to lead the regeneration of Manchester after the IRA bombing in 1996 died after a ‘period of illness’.

If a man’s worth was judged by tributes alone Sir Howard’s contribution to Manchester’s resurgence would already be secure but his legacy runs much deeper than words.

Hours after learning of his death, I paid my first visit to Manchester Co-op Live, which is bouncing back after a nightmare launch.

Everywhere I looked I could see Sir Howard’s legacy, which he built up during his remarkable career.

Commonwealth Games

By way of a recap Manchester City Council’s former chief executive is credited with bringing the Commonwealth Games to Manchester in 2002.

He used the global sports event to breathe new life into East Manchester, paving the way for Manchester City’s move from Maine Road ground to the Manchester Stadium (now known as the Etihad Stadium) and the creation of the Etihad Campus.

Manchester City FC even named a footway Sir Howard Bernstein Way in 2017.

There are countless other examples of his contribution to Manchester but, before that, I’ve spent much of the weekend reflecting on my own dealings with Sir Howard.

He joined the council as a clerk in 1971, rising up through the ranks to become chief executive in 1998, a position he held until his retirement in 2017 after 46 years  with the council.

He operated out of Room 212 in the historic Manchester Town Hall, with its Neo-Gothic architecture.

There was something strangely reassuring that in a city whose skyline had been transformed by modern developments like Spinningfields and Renaker’s Deansgate Square, the heartbeat remained a small room accessed by a labyrinth of corridors and staircases that wouldn’t have been out-of-place at Hogwarts Castle.

For me an invitation into Room 212 for a ‘cup of tea and a chat’ with the bespectacled Sir Howard was like getting a golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

On one occasion I remember waiting to be ushered through one door to see the great man while Gary Neville was leaving out of the other. It was like a conveyor belt.

Gary Neville

The former Manchester United footballer led the tributes to Sir Howard over the weekend, speaking of being ‘truly devastated’ at his death.

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“It is difficult to put into words the impact he had on Manchester but also me personally,” he wrote. “His love, vision and boldness for our city was unmatched.

“In the challenging world of politics and public service, he was a man who got things done and played the biggest role in building the Manchester we see today.

“I remember my first MIPIM with him and he asked me: ‘Can you deliver?’ and I remember feeling the weight of responsibility I was taking on. I replied ‘yes’. He said: ‘Good, let’s go for it’.”

Sir Howard wasn’t a big man physically but he could fill the biggest room with his presence and gravelly laugh.

Rarely seen without his trademark scarf and  sovereign rings, his hair was always neatly combed over and those who have dealt with him speak of his forensic eye for detail.

The thing I remember most about Room 212 was the two blue seats he’d salvaged from his beloved Man City’s former Maine Road ground. Their presence almost served as a reminder that in ploughing ahead with a shiny future, Sir Howard never forgot the importance of the past.

I interviewed Sir Howard on a number of occasions and two of things that struck me most about him was the importance of place and role of business in revitalising Manchester’s fortunes.

In 2014 Sir Howard took part in a roundtable I hosted in which he explained his philosophy.

“For many, many years we’ve understood or tried to understand what the market is doing and try and recognise what the market wants with how the city is actually performing,” he said.

“The second element for us is to look and place the city in the wider global market. I don’t think enough places in the UK do that. We’ve worked out because of that this is not just about how you expand your occupier base.

“It’s fundamentally how you expand your business base. Increasingly it’s about how Manchester internationalises itself with those places around the world which are capable of supporting our growth ambitions.”

As I re-read the quotes over the weekend I was filled with a sense of nostalgia as I pictured Sir Howard delivering them in his distinctive voice.

Alongside former council leader, Sir Richard Leese, the message was clear that under their watch Manchester was open for business and business responded in kind, with foreign investment pouring into the city.

Former MEN journalist Jennifer Williams described him in an article in the Financial Times on Saturday as a ‘consummate dealmaker and fixer’ and she was right.

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She summed it up perfectly when she wrote: “Bernstein’s singular ability to cajole, persuade and adapt would ultimately change the face of his city.”

Sir Howard knew how to get things done and understood the importance of creating a compelling case.

For example in 2014 I received an email from Sir Howard asking for my support for Lancashire County Cricket Club’s bid to host a number of prestigious matches between 2017-2019 and its importance to the wider region.

“It would be helpful if you were able to write a letter of support to the club, including perhaps how you believe you may be able to assist in making the events a great success,” he wrote. “Guidelines for the letter of support are attached.”

I’m in no doubt the same email was send to hundreds of people far more important than me but it made me feel like I was on the journey and had a role to play. Few leaders have that gift.

As a journalist Sir Howard’s importance can’t be overstated.

In 2015 I was tasked with organising Insider’s Property Investment Forum in London.

In readiness for MIPIM, we’d bring Manchester to London for three simultaneous roundtable discussions to look at the emerging trends in the investment market.

The premise for the event was simple. The hard part was getting the cream of Manchester’s property sector to head down to London to take part.

However, once Sir Howard confirmed he’d be there, everybody else confirmed their attendance too.

While researching this article I reminded myself of some of the other A-list attendees who were there and the positions they held at the time.

Michael Ingall, CEO, Allied London; Tom Bloxham, chairman and co-founder Urban Splash; Deborah McLaughlin, chief executive elect, Manchester Place; Philip Nell, senior director, head of European Retail Funds – Aviva Real Estate; Alan Bainbridge, property director, BBC; David Pringle, director, NOMA; George Holmes, VC, University of Bolton; Rowena Burns, chief executive, MSP; James Baker, business director, National Graphene Institute; Ed Crockett, fund manager, Aberdeen Asset Management; Matt Crompton, joint managing director, Muse Developments;  Lynda Shillaw, property CEO, Manchester Airport Group; Alex Russell, Property Alliance Group.  The list went on an on.

Sir Howard told Insider’s Property Investment Forum: “We have to recognise that to be successful you have got to be business-friendly. We’ve spent a very long time working through a very carefully crafted strategy.

“We want to make our organisations responsive to the needs and aspirations of investors and that is part of our DNA. It’s a fundamental part of Greater Manchester’s strategy.”

When Sir Howard announced he was retiring, former Chancellor George Osborne described Sir Howard as the ‘star of British local government’.

The two had enjoyed a fruitful relationship, which had resulted in several waves of unprecedented devolution for the region.

Sir Howard’s achievements are too numerous to list here but his biggest impact was on the people whose lives he touched.

Michael Ingall

Of all the tributes that I read at the weekend the one that genuinely moved me was from Michael Ingall, CEO of Allied London.

He wrote: “For me Howard was a close friend and so often that mentor. I knew he knew what we were doing, and he knew that I knew what we were doing,

“We had a bond. That friendship enabled me to experience his real side, and it was one of love, empathy, intelligence, determination and ambition.

“I never witnessed anger, only frustration, and when we needed to talk serious he always had the ability to listen and I would listen to him intently.

“I never witnessed politics only perception and intelligence, if it wasn’t his vision he didn’t care, if he thought it would benefit his city he would be very quick to get on board and he never ever took long to get it.

“Of course Howard was a politician, but he knew dabbling in party politics just wouldn’t achieve the bold and ambitious agendas.

“He understood the system, he just left himself free of all that so he could cross the house when he needed to.

“His agenda was to deliver the projects that would make a difference, and that agenda is now a long list of achievements.

“I was lucky to visit him at his home very recently.  I told him how much he meant to me and that I loved him.

“He looked at me and repeated a text from nine months ago. ‘You have been and remain one of the most significant persons in my lifetime too. Don’t worry I am told the worst is over for this illness’.”

Sir Howard Bernstein 1953-2024