‘We recognised that financial services were going to be an increasing part of our economy’

The increasingly fashionable notion that the UK can do without the financial services sector gets short shrift from Sir Howard Bernstein. “Well, it’s barmy really,” snorts the Manchester council chief executive.

As Biba prepares to gather in his home city for the second time in three years, Sir Howard is unabashed about the crucial importance of a strong financial services sector to the Manchester economy.

Attracting such businesses has been a key plank of the city’s economic development strategy over 20 years. “We recognised that it was going to be an increasing part of our economy and I believe that we made the right call,” says Sir Howard, who has been the key architect of the city’s transformation since a large chunk of the city centre was devastated by an IRA bomb in 1996.

“It’s very important to Manchester’s future economy that we continue to fulfil our potential where the financial services are concerned.”

And insurance is a key element of the city’s offer, he says. “We are very pleased that, notwithstanding some of the difficulties and pressures over the past few years, the insurance industry in particular has continued to remain relatively buoyant.”

Sir Howard estimates that the financial services sector as a whole accounts for at least 40% of the city’s employment. “It will continue to represent a very sizeable chunk of our future employment,” he says, “Manchester is one of the few places outside London and the south east which has a very, very significant growth potential.”

He understands why some insurance businesses left the city centre during the 1980s. In those days, he acknowledges, Manchester’s central business district didn’t offer the right kind of office space. “Going out of the city was the only way of accessing the operational efficiencies that many occupiers demanded.”

However, companies have discovered the downsides of more peripheral locations, Sir Howard believes. “When you add on recruitment and retention costs, access to amenities, lifestyle and access to skills, looking at occupation costs in isolation is not always the right thing to do.”

As well as improving the city centre’s building stock and transport, the council has also set up ProManchester, which gives the city’s financial and professional services sectors a platform to lobby for what it wants.