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Local government - How to make cities slicker

Working lives - Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese says infrastructure is essential to economic growth and urban regeneration. Interview by Jackie Whitelaw.

Leader of Manchester City Council Richard Leese writes on his CV that his political interests 'include the links between economic development and social policy, and the role of cities in creating a sustainable future'. Over the last few months he has had ample opportunity to develop both of those themes courtesy of the construction industry.

Since July he and his council have been in the thick of the fight to reinstate phase three of Manchester's popular Metrolink light rail scheme. And at the same time Leese has been touring the country seeing first hand how construction schemes kick-start economic growth as one of the British Construction Industry Awards (BCIA) judges.

This week a repackaged Metrolink plan has gone to government and Leese is hopeful - actually more than that - he is determined that the project will be reprieved and a contractor appointed by the end of the month. At the same time he will relinquish his duties as a BCIA judge when the prizes are handed out at the awards ceremony on 28 October. Which means he will be able to concentrate full time on the day job of leading the council.

Leese, 51, was first elected as a Labour councillor for Manchester City Council 20 years ago. He is now in his ninth year as leader representing a population of close to 400,000 at the heart of a conurbation that is laying claim to being Britain's second city. He was born in Mansfield, studied maths at Warwick University and was then employed as a teacher, youth and community worker and in education research before becoming a full time politician.

His interest in the impact construction can have on the character of a city developed when he was involved in the rebuilding of Hulme in the early 1990s. 'I recognised that if we want to make Manchester a place where people want to live and work quality of design and construction is crucial, ' he says. Insistence on quality is now fundamental to all Manchester's projects, Leese says, and it has helped the council win the RIBA award for client of the year twice in the last three years.

The council has learned the lessons of how to be a good client, he maintains. 'You have to be clear about what you want and we have made sure project management is a clear element of what we do. We have a very good capital projects manager with a very rigorous process for scrutinising schemes.

But for building something outside our experience, like the City of Manchester stadium, we brought in the best project manager we could get with the right experience and expertise.'

Leese says, however, that his time as a BCIA judge has given him new insight into construction.

'I discovered that what looks on paper to be a boring scheme can have a significant economic contribution; that roads can be designed to improve the environment; and that there is huge benefit in using tried and tested teams rather than creating a new team for every project.'

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