Sir Richard Leese to stand down as Manchester council leader after 25 years

By Jennifer Williams

Manchester’s veteran town hall leader Sir Richard Leese will stand down from the top job at the start of December, the M.E.N. can reveal.

Sir Richard, who has been in charge for 25 years, will then step down from the council, on which he has represented Crumpsall since 1984, next spring ahead of May’s local elections.

Labour councillors were being informed of the decision this evening.

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Sir Richard told the M.E.N. he had been mulling over the move for several years, but that a range of factors, not least the intensity of the job and a wish to spend more time with his young grandchildren, meant now felt right.

"I feel very comfortable about it," he said.

His departure - the timing of which has long been the subject of speculation within political circles - marks the end of an era both for Manchester town hall and for the city’s Labour Party, while sending reverberations throughout northern politics and business.

Sir Richard’s tenure oversaw a transformation in the Manchester economy - and in its skyline.

He also led the council’s Labour group to dominate local government politics in the city, at one point achieving a clean sweep. In 2021, Labour still holds all but two of the town hall’s 96 seats.

After 25 years at the top, however, he said it was time to take a step back. Originally, he added, his intention was to stand down after a four-year term that was supposed to end in 2020 - but changes to the local election boundaries meant he was then up for re-election two years sooner than expected.

That point, in 2018, 'didn't feel for me, or for the council, the right time,' he said. Ever since then he has been 'reviewing' the idea.

"There are a number of reasons but the bottom line is I don't want to do it anymore," he said. "I don't want to do 60 hour weeks and 12 hour days."

He believes now is also strategically a good time to hand over the reins.

"I think the agenda we've set out for the council now is a three to five year agenda and it really needs somebody else going to drive that over a period of time" he said. "I think that's a job for somebody new.

"There are a number of really good potential candidates to take my place and I think the strategic management of the council is in pretty good place at the moment."

He particularly wants to spend more time with his family, he added, after a gruelling two years that has hardly featured any time off. Sir Richard said he was particularly hoping to be able to spend more time babysitting his grandchildren, rather than saying 'no, I've got a meeting'.

Sir Richard is one of the country's longest serving council leaders and one of the most high profile figures in local government.

After his election to the top job in 1996 he was just getting his feet under the table when the IRA detonated a 3,300lb bomb outside the Arndale. The aftermath would see Manchester council lever millions in private and central government money in order to underpin its rebuild.

From there, Manchester’s already-growing reputation for regeneration burgeoned further, with the 2002 Commonwealth Games extending that strategy out into the post-industrial east of the city.

As a Labour leader he and Sir Howard Bernstein - chief executive alongside Sir Richard for nearly 20 years until his retirement in 2017 - became known as the ultimate in local government pragmatists, viewing the private sector and politically differing governments alike as potential partners for leveraging new jobs and growth into the city.

Ultimately that would see hundreds of cranes climb above the city centre skyline as part of an unapologetically muscular regeneration agenda, one that sparked fierce debate over the city’s housing market, but which was seen at the top of the town hall as a key pillar in its strategy to revive the city’s economy from post-industrial decline.

Under the coalition government, Sir Richard also pushed a devolution agenda for the city and the wider conurbation that would ultimately result in the introduction of a mayoral system in 2017.

Subsequently he also maintained a dominant political presence within the Greater Manchester Combined Authority even under Andy Burnham’s mayoralty, in which he has served as deputy mayor first with responsibility for economics and more recently for health.

Although insiders say his name has been in the frame for a new senior health position - chair of one of the new Integrated Care System boards being drawn up by the government for Greater Manchester - he would not be drawn on any plans for the future.

"I'm going to be in a position where there are things I could do, but I'm not going to do anything full time and I'm not going to do anything I don't want to do," he said.

(ABNM Photography)

"I'm not going to do anything for the sake of it. I don't need to, I don't want to and I won't."

As Labour councillors learned of the news this evening, the group’s secretary Pat Karney said Sir Richard would leave a lasting legacy on the lives of Mancunians.

“His political passion and mantra has not changed in all the years I have known him,” he said.

“Public services can change people’s lives for the better. His legacy is that he has changed thousands of Mancunian lives for the better.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted in response to the news: "Driven by Labour values and commitment to his city, Sir Richard Leese has been a phenomenal council leader and a credit to Manchester.

"He’s shown what Labour in power can deliver. We’re all grateful to him for what he’s achieved and I wish him all the best for the future."

Joanne Roney, who has worked closely alongside Sir Richard as the city’s chief executive over the last four years, called him 'a towering figure in the life of Manchester', 'which has been transformed during more than a quarter of a century of his leadership from a declining, post-industrial city to the fastest growing city in the UK which can face the future with confidence'.

“His leadership and consistent vision have been integral to that turnaround, guiding the city’s remarkable regeneration and playing a key role in devolution and the integration of health and social care," she said.

"He has also helped lead the city through some difficult times, including the aftermath of the 2017 Manchester Arena terror attack and most recently of course the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic."

She said the 'strength of the foundations his drive and dedication' have built over decades means 'his legacy will endure', including via some of the huge strategic housing programmes in the city, such as Victoria North between the city centre and Collyhurst.

“It has been a privilege to serve alongside Richard, and together with the rest of Manchester’s leadership team I look forward to continuing that work.”

At tonight’s Labour group meeting the process for a leadership race in October will be triggered, with Sir Richard set to stand down on December 1.

Asked how he feels about leaving the job behind, he said: "I feel very comfortable about it.

"I think it is the right thing for me and I don't think it's any bad thing for the council. I feel very comfortable with it."


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