Joanne Roney: Manchester City Council’s new chief executive

Manchester City Council’s new chief executive has an impressive track record, and big plans for the city. By Louisa Clarence-Smith. Portrait by Simon Vine

joanne_roney-wakefieldc28Joanne Roney can’t sleep. It’s 2009 and the collapsing Anglo Irish Bank has pulled its funding for the half-built £200m Trinity Walk shopping centre in Wakefield. “We were very nearly left with a deep hole in the ground,” she recalls. “The bank had collapsed and was talking about selling the site for scrap metal.”

With the developer Modus in administration, the council chief executive put together a rescue package of new finance and in 2010, the scheme was sold to a consortium of Sovereign Land, AREA Property Partners and Shepherd Construction. The shopping centre opened in 2011.

“I absolutely did everything to get Trinity away,” she says. “It was so important.”

Wakefield may have a population of around half that of Manchester, but Sir Howard Bernstein’s successor has an impressive track record of getting large schemes off the ground. When housebuilders weren’t coming to Wakefield, Roney created the council’s own housing company, Bridge Homes, in joint partnership with developer WDH in 2014.

“It came about because we were not getting very good commercial offers on some of our sites,” she says. “This is a competitive market. Wakefield was probably not seen as the best place for investment in terms of the return and the offers we were getting. And there were some developments I didn’t think were commercially good enough. So we decided we would create our own company. We wanted to show the market that there was a market in Wakefield.” The company’s first site comprised 24 detached homes, all of which were sold off-plan, with profits invested in future housing developments.

I want to be rooted in Manchester. I really need to be able to feel the city and know the city

Anyone who fears the next Manchester City Council chief executive won’t understand housing and regeneration can think again. Born and bred on a council estate in Birmingham, Roney joined the local council’s housing team as an apprentice at 16, studying at night school to earn her MBA in public sector management from Birmingham City University. During her nine-year tenure as executive director of housing and community care at Sheffield City Council (1999-2008), she was instrumental in saving Park Hill estate by negotiating a deal with Urban Splash. 

The self-described “housing professional” will have a loaded in-tray when she takes up office in Manchester Town Hall in April, not least, getting to know Greater Manchester’s first metro mayor and ensuring the success of Manchester’s health devolution. Will housing and regeneration take a back seat?

“Manchester has been very clear that what they’ve been looking for in their recruitment of their new chief exec is someone who can say, ‘Look, we know the city is doing incredibly well, has massive plans for regeneration, and is a very exciting place to be’. 

“The challenge now is, are we maximising the benefit of all of that for our residents and how do we make the most of fitting together those two agendas? So I think, health is a dimension of that as is housing, so is skills, so is training, so is transport.”

She warns at the start of the interview that she is not ready to “wax lyrical” about the intricacies of the Manchester housing market. But she is spending her weekends looking for a home to rent in the city centre for herself and her dearly loved rescue cat Tiger, so she can get to know it better.

“I want to rent first because this is a job to spend a lot of my time on and I want to be rooted in Manchester. I really need to be able to feel the city and know the city.” Once she is settled, she plans to sell her home on the outskirts of Sheffield and buy something in the city.

If she is not prepared to be too specific, she does have strong views on what should be in the government’s housing white paper – the long-awaited document outlining a “radical” shake-up of housing policy under prime minister Theresa May’s administration.

“Flexibility of housing policy and housing funding,” for Greater Manchester should be priorities, she says. “Housing investment alongside other investment and flexibility of approach is very much what I’ve pushed for all through my career. It would be great to see that in Manchester.”

Starter homes have a role in “some places”, but a neat “one-size-fits-all policy for housing doesn’t always work with local housing markets,” she says. On homes for sale versus build-to-rent in the city centre, she thinks both have their place and it’s “all about balance”.

One controversial scheme she is likely to have to advise the council on is Gary Neville’s St Michael’s towers, which have received more than 2,000 objections in a petition but have been defended by council leader Sir Richard Leese. Does she think the developer should rethink the plans in the face of so much opposition?

I’ve always been struck by Manchester’s relentless ambition really

“I think I’d need to see what the objections are about really. As always with these things, what’s the ultimate outcome trying to achieve here? I’ve worked in housing all my life. Of course, you have to balance these environmental and social impacts, with a need to do more housing. Because the truth is, we need more housing. Manchester’s population is growing, it’s anticipated to grow by 600,000 in the next five-10 years. So there needs to be some form of housing, always keeping an eye on what’s being delivered and what the market is really saying is important.”

A key part of Roney’s role will be driving forward the devolution agenda as part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Would she like to see greater devolution? “I’ve always been struck by Manchester’s relentless ambition, so whatever is on the table now in terms of a devolution agreement with the mayor, I’m sure is just a starting point,” she says.

“Quite rightly, local government needs to evidence that it delivers for government. It has to deliver, not just ask for more money or freedom and flexibilities to devolve power. We need to deliver and then ask for more.”

As lead executive for skills funding at the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and a member of the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, she knows what it’s like to negotiate with other council chief executives. But if an Amazon or a Google wanted to set up a new European HQ in the North of England, would she fight tooth and nail to make sure they came to Manchester? Roney smiles: “In some instances, we might all have to compete and show our best offer and the choice will be made.”

But she insists she is behind the Northern Powerhouse agenda. “It’s not the success of Manchester at all costs to other areas. That’s not a long-term strategy, is it? So the principle has to be that we want to see everywhere benefit and grow.”

The role Roney is stepping into will look rather different from the one left by Bernstein. With an elected mayor in place, the council chief executives will be reporting to the combined authority. “I think we will all work through who does what, where,” Roney says. “I think the public sector now is operating in a very different way to perhaps how people realise. We’re much more collaborative and collegiate and collective and getting the ambitions delivered, with maximum benefits for residents.”

During his 18 years at the top of Manchester council, Bernstein became known as much for his achievements as for his personal style. What will Roney’s leadership style be? She laughs and says I should ask someone else who has worked with her. Industry reports are positive. 

Mark Latham, regeneration director at Urban Splash, who remembers her involvement in Park Hill, says: “She and her team understood partnerships and the drivers that commercial organisations have but also getting the right thing for the city, so I see her appointment as fantastically positive.”

A survey of Roney’s Wakefield office suggests Star Wars memorabilia could replace the Manchester City totems that adorn Bernstein’s town hall lair. A sign hanging on a door of her office is revealing: “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas.”

Roney will be at MIPIM Cannes, but says she will be keeping a low profile until her tenure officially begins. I ask her if she is looking forward to the Manchester pavilion, which will position the city on the Riviera for the first time, in between Paris and London. She is, but says she might be spending more time on the low-key West Yorkshire stand. As I get up to leave, Roney adds, “Maybe with a woman in charge, we could have a Northern Powerhouse pavilion next time.”  She might be a Brummie, but she has plenty of Northern grit.

Quick-fire questions

Man City or Man United? I’m a Birmingham City fan. 

What’s the UK’s second city? You’re asking a Brummie to answer that question? What I can say without doubt is that Manchester is the most vibrant city in the North of England and I’m delighted to be there.

Heritage assets or new development? I love both. I really like new design, good new design.

Tall buildings or low rise? Always for me, quality of design trumps what we should be deciding on here. It’s not one or the other, is it?

Tea or coffee? Coffee all day, tea at weekends.

Saturday night – in or out? Out, out. Never in.

What’s the last band you saw live? Fleetwood Mac.

The bottom line: A key part of Roney’s role will be driving forward the devolution agenda as part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, while flexibility of housing policy and housing funding for Greater Manchester should be priorities in her view.

To send feedback, e-mail or tweet @LouisaClarence or @estatesgazette



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