Change of Leader and the IRA Bomb

This short chapter covers the period in 1996 when there was a change of leadership of the Labour Group. Graham Stringer was selected as parliamentary candidate and Richard Leese was elected as Leader of the Labour Group and the Council. Just 6 weeks after he became Leader, the IRA exploded a bomb in the centre of Manchester. The experience in the immediate aftermath of this terrible event and then how the city recovered is also covered.
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No viable leadership alternatives

Concerns the non-sectarian Left identified in 1987 about Graham Stringer’s leadership style (see chapter 12) weren’t strong enough at the time to result in a leadership challenge. The majority view seemed to be that as we were still pursuing a left-leaning political direction, and there wasn’t really a viable alternative leader, we should continue to support him as Leader.

In May 1990, after Richard Leese had completed his four-year term of office as Chair of the Education Committee, he was elected as the Chair of the Finance Committee, but also as one of the Deputy Leaders. This put him in a very powerful position – really on an equal footing with Graham Stringer – and it was felt that they made a good team, with their contrasting leadership styles. Val Dunn was elected as the second Deputy (in addition to being elected as Chair of the Personnel Committee), but she was never regarded as anything more than a token Deputy. Kath Robinson (who had been one of the Deputies for two years, in addition to being Chair of the Leisure Services Committee) had withdrawn her nomination in Val’s favour.

When Richard Leese had completed his four years as Chair of the Finance Committee in May 1994, there was no credible person to take over (at least no-one who wasn’t already a chair of a major committee) so it was agreed by the Party and the Group that an exception would be made to the four-year rule and Richard was elected for a fifth year. There was no built-in time limit for the Deputy Leader (or Leader) position and Richard was re-elected to this position too.

The death of the national leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, in May 1994 was a great shock to everyone, but other than setting up a ‘Condolences book’ in the Town Hall for the public to sign, his death made no real impact on the operation of the Labour Group in Manchester.

On the 10th anniversary of the Left administration (16 May 1994), the Manchester Evening News devoted a full page spread to an interview with Graham Stringer by Ray King. Graham claimed that the creative accountancy schemes were the brainchild of Margaret Hodge at the Bournemouth Annual Conference in September 1985, which contradicted received wisdom in the Labour Group that it was Frances Done who was the originator. He also claimed that from 1987, the leadership’s influence over the Party was heightened. He was obviously thinking of the work he put in to persuading the Party to change its approach to the government (see chapter 11) but it perhaps reflected complacency in his power.

Increasingly, Party members felt that Graham Stringer had stopped listening to advice from other people and was confiding in fewer and fewer people that he ‘trusted’. Throughout 1994/95 Richard Leese (apparently) became increasingly exasperated with him. It is difficult to identify the exact point at which the majority of the Labour Group stopped supporting him, but I think (as does Val Stevens) it was his handling of the proposed Heaton Park golf development from June 1994 (see chapter 23).

Stringer selected as parliamentary candidate

In October 1994, Graham made it clear he was going to try for the Blackley parliamentary seat following Ken Eastham’s announcement that he would retire at the next election. He indicated to Janine Watson (journalist at the MEN) that if he was selected he would quit as Council Leader within the next two years. Janine’s subsequent article speculated that contenders for the leadership would be Richard Leese, Dave Lunts and me! But in fact it was the Deputy Leader Kath Robinson who was rumoured to be considering it and Janine must have jumped to the wrong conclusion when she heard ‘Kath’ mentioned.

Once Graham Stringer had been selected for the Blackley seat, speculation was rife in the Labour Group about exactly when he would stand down. There was no real appetite to mount a challenge and the majority view was that he should go voluntarily and allow an open election for his successor. There was a general assumption that he would stand down in May 1996 and concentrate on the Parliamentary campaign, and that Richard Leese, as the natural successor, would then become leader. Martin Pagel believes that Graham and Richard struck a ‘deal’ on this.

So, in May 1995, Graham Stringer was re-elected as Leader with Richard Leese as Deputy and Kath Robinson as second Deputy, but this was to be Richard’s only role, as there were at that point a number of people able to take on Chair of the Finance Committee. In the event, there were just two candidates nominated – myself (having just completed my four years and Chair of Education) and Cath Inchbold (who had been Richard’s deputy on Finance for two years and then Chair of the Highways and Cleansing Committee for two years). At the City Party meeting, Cath garnered more votes than I did (which was a blow to my ego, but hardly surprising since Graham Stringer still had some influence in the City Party) so she was the Party’s nomination to the Labour Group and I didn’t challenge this.

A new sub-committee was established for the Policy & Resources Committee – Social Strategy – which was to be chaired by Richard Leese (with the Urban Strategy Sub-committee chaired by Graham), but this was hardly enough to keep him busy after five years of combining Chair of Finance with Deputy Leader.

For Social Strategy, Richard’s initial approach was to be as inclusive as possible and for the sub-committee to set up short-term task-oriented working parties[1]. Each of these Member-officer working parties had a remit to work for just 12 months and produce a report with clear recommendations for the future development of that policy area.

Val Stevens was re-elected to the Council in May 1995. She had resigned from the Council in 1987 and initially had no intention of returning, but the kind of people joining the Labour Party and the direction it was taking following Tony Blair’s election as Leader concerned her greatly. The deciding factor was her concern about the politics of the potential candidate for Chorlton ward in January 1995, which led to her standing, being selected for the seat, and ultimately winning it.

She found the Council to be very different from the one she had left in 1987, with a great deal of dissatisfaction with Graham Stringer as Leader and a council structure that seemed very poor. Administration was never one of Graham’s strong points and his favoured officers seemed to form an inner politburo distorting legitimate management for the sake of political expediency or whim. His two deputies (Richard Leese and Kath Robinson) had very little influence on the policies that Graham pursued and he seemed to listen to fewer and fewer people, believing that because of his previous regeneration successes he was unassailable. Val Stevens was very unhappy about the ‘deal’ between Graham and Richard for the leadership succession and decided to ‘throw her hat into the ring’ to ensure there was a proper election. She didn’t discuss this with very many people at the time because she felt most people were in Graham’s camp, and Richard was showing every sign of letting Graham have a free run at the AGM.

Dissatisfaction forced leadership contest

Graham Stringer decided he wanted to carry on as Leader until the general election was called (which could have been as late as June 1997). There was general concern about this in the Labour Group and much gossiping in the Members’ room about who might be persuaded to stand against him in May 1996. A number of people began ‘sounding’ out their level of support for a leadership bid. Graham was convinced that Richard Leese was plotting to oust him sooner than he wanted to go. He believed Arnold Spencer was also plotting and would support Richard, although Arnold believed Richard was just as bad as Graham and is adamant that he wasn’t involved in any plotting.

Graham invited Kath Robinson into his office ‘for a cup of tea’ (the only time he had ever done this in all the years she had been Deputy) to seek her views on Richard’s supposed ‘plot’ to oust him. She made it clear that Graham wouldn’t have enough support to carry on beyond May 1996.

Whilst Richard Leese might not have been involved in ‘plotting’, Martin Pagel was actually doing so on his behalf. He worked hard on the Trade Union leadership to get them to change their allegiance and on the Labour Group members, some of whom found his tactics quite intimidating. At this point it was clear that Val Stevens still intended to stand.

Richard approached Kath Robinson to ask if she would support him and she said she hadn’t decided whether or not to stand herself. He asked her if she would consider running as his Deputy. According to Kath, he recognised that he lacked the social and networking skills necessary to succeed as Leader (although he felt he had more social skills than Graham) and wanted Kath to fulfil that role as his Deputy. Kath said she would give it some serious thought and write down all the issues she thought were important to the Labour Group and the City Party and, depending on his response to how he thought they could work together as a team to meet these expectations, she wouldn’t stand against him. But, if he didn’t perform as the Labour Group expected, then she would challenge him the following year.

After they had another talk about these issues, Kath decided not to run for Leader (she had also recently been selected as the parliamentary candidate for Burnage and wanted to concentrate on building up Labour support for that seat).

However, Val Stevens was even more determined to stand in order to force an election because she felt that the Council needed a change of leadership style. She says she had no intention of being Leader or indeed campaigning to be Leader, but wanted the stalemate to be broken. She had no pretentions about her level of support but knew that Graham Stringer knew about the level of dissatisfaction and opposition to him and that he could not be sure of his vote.

When it was clear to Graham that there wasn’t enough support in the Group for him to continue as Leader, he (and Cath Inchbold) backed Dave Lunts as a potential candidate. Dave eventually recognised that he hadn’t enough support to win – partly because he was too closely identified with Graham, but also because he had alienated a lot of people when he was Chair of Housing. He wouldn’t support Richard Leese though.

In the event there were just two candidates for Leader in May 1996 – Richard Leese and Val Stevens. Richard won, with Val getting 16 or 17 votes (which surprised her), and Graham was elected as Chair of Manchester Airport plc until the general election.

Kath Robinson and Martin Pagel were elected as deputy leaders. Martin was also re-elected as Chair of the Social Services Committee; Kath took on the Chair of the Urban Strategy Sub-committee; Richard stayed as Chair of the Social Strategy Sub-committee and also took the Chair of the new Equal Opportunities and Community Consultation Sub-committee. Dave Lunts and Arnold Spencer decided to leave the Council the following May (1997).

IRA Bomb in Manchester

After all this internecine plotting and planning, the harsh realities of leading the Council in a major city very quickly asserted themselves. Just six weeks after the local elections, on Saturday 15th June 1996, when Richard Leese and Martin Pagel were in the Banqueting suite of the Town Hall leading a training session for candidates and agents for the election the following May, a massive IRA bomb exploded in the city centre. A Party activist who was present says that when the bomb went off the window panes wobbled in and out for what seemed like ages, and Martin shouted “Get away from the windows!” Amazingly they didn’t break, but did move a lot.

Immediately after the blast, the police set up cordons around the area of damage, and around the outer ring road to prevent cars entering the city. The full details of the police operation once the tip-off had been received and the devastation caused are fully documented in Ray King’s excellent book ‘Detonation – the rebirth of a city’.

Richard Leese and Martin Pagel stayed in the Town Hall to field media enquiries, then, following reports of threats to the city’s Irish community, went to the Irish World Heritage Centre in Cheetham to have a drink and show solidarity with Manchester’s Irish community. Fortunately, Mancunians were able to distinguish between the city’s Irish community and the IRA bombers. Only three months earlier (launched 10th March), the first Irish Festival had been held in the city (see chapter 23).

It was miraculous that no-one was killed by the bomb blast, but more than 200 people were injured, and some seriously. Significant damage was done to the Royal Exchange and the Cathedral, as well as the Arndale shopping centre and all the stores and businesses within a half-mile radius of the site on Cross Street. Alf Morris MP said in Parliament that it caused more damage than the bombing during the second world war.

On the Sunday, the Euro ‘96 football match between Germany and Russia went ahead at Old Trafford’s ground (the stadium had been heavily searched and guarded overnight). This was a further demonstration of defiance to the bombers.

At the time of the bomb, Kath Robinson was in Japan with a team of officers, promoting investment in Manchester. She saw the news on TV and immediately telephoned Richard Leese to ask if she should get back straight away. Richard advised her to stay and that it was even more important now for to do the best job possible in promoting Manchester and that when she got back she could take over from him and Martin as they were exhausted by that time.

Emergency Planning in Action

The Council’s emergency plan was exemplary, led by a council officer, David Howarth. The plan benefited from lessons learned as a result of previous emergencies in Miles Platting and Hulme, where there had been explosions in council houses.

The city centre was like a ghost town, and Cross Street looked like war-torn Beirut with fire alarms sounding continually. A few days after the blast I was one of the members of the Labour Group who went with senior council officers on a walk-about, escorted by police officers and the devastation was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen first hand.

The police and senior council officers worked closely together – meeting twice daily (according to Ray King) – addressing daily meetings of owners and occupiers of buildings in the affected area. Around 5,000 people came in for help and advice during the first weekend and during the week. Town Hall staff ran a business help-line – giving information and advice. Because of all this information and help, the support from the business community for the police and the Council increased enormously.

The Council workforce played a key role in clearing up. Working from the outer ring road inwards, section by section, a team of surveyors led by the City Architect inspected buildings for structural damage. Then council workers went in to clear glass and debris, following which the owners of the premises were allowed back in. A strict ‘pass’ system was introduced to prevent looting. Within 48 hours of the blast, 70% of the premises which had been cordoned off were released to their owners and after six days, only the most severely damaged buildings were still out of bounds.

According to Pat Karney, the role of the politicians was crucial in dealing with large meetings of business people in the Town Hall. He quipped, “One thing politicians are good at is handling large meetings.” His message was that the City would be back on its feet and as soon as things were safe for them to return to their businesses, they would be allowed to. The Council leadership’s priorities were reassurance, confidence building and establishing a means of supporting small traders (who were uninsured against terror attacks). Richard Leese made a pledge that Manchester would recover and be better than before. The Prime Minister, John Major, echoed Richard’s optimism, but gave no pledge of financial support.

On the Wednesday after the blast a Lord Mayor’s appeal fund was set up by the Chief Executive (Arthur Sandford) and launched by the then Lord Mayor (Derek Shaw) – to assist those who’d suffered injury or loss and hardship. There were large donations from business philanthropists, large businesses, the Airport, trade unions and local authorities, and small donations from local people. Central government eventually contributed £300,000.

A week after the blast, a family fun day in Albert Square was organised and an event at the Castlefield Arena – encouraging people to show their love for Manchester and show that Manchester was up and running and not going to be destroyed by the IRA.

Around the same time, Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein (Deputy Chief Executive) addressed a meeting of business people to explain what they’d done to date and what they hoped to achieve, and received a standing ovation. Ray King quotes Howard Bernstein surprise at the remarkable situation of a business community applauding a Labour Council Leader – showing the mutual respect between private and public sector that perhaps wouldn’t be seen anywhere else in UK.

Rebuilding the city centre

In relation to the iconic Royal Exchange building, it was a year before the actual damage could be properly assessed and it took £31 million to repair it. The Corn Exchange building and the Cathedral were extensively damaged (it cost £200,000 just for the windows). It also cost £130,000 to replace the stained glass windows in St Ann’s Church. Surprisingly, the mediaeval buildings (the Old Shambles, the Old Wellington Inn and Sinclair’s Oyster Bar) all survived.

More than £2 million was distributed from the Lord Mayor’s emergency appeal fund[2] in grants and loans to around 700 applicants, 400 small firms were rescued and 300 individuals were offered vital assistance.

The Chief Executive of Marks and Spencer, Sir Richard Greenbury, pledged to build a new store that would be truly magnificent and this was a hugely important confidence booster for the city.

On 26th June the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, came to Manchester. The Council had ‘demanded’ a task force, headed by a Government Minister and a £500 million rebuilding drive. Heseltine made a commitment that the government would help re-instate the damage, but also declared that construction would be thrown open to an international competition. From Heseltine’s memoirs (as reported by Ray King), “Rather than just patching things up, they should find imaginative urban landscape architects to come up with ideas to rebuild a much wider area around the heart of Manchester.”

Richard Leese agreed, much to Heseltine’s surprise. But he and Howard Bernstein knew what they wanted. They had met with David Trippier beforehand and explained they had a masterplan to rebuild the city centre. Trippier was happy to reinforce the message. They sowed the seed in Heseltine’s mind about the international competition because they knew he like grand schemes. Although there was a temptation to repair and re-instate the city centre as quickly as possible because of the imminent opening of the Trafford Centre, the chance to completely re-design it was an opportunity not to be missed.

A week later, Heseltine came back to unveil an initial offer of £21 million (top-sliced from European funds).

Around two weeks after the bombing, the task force charged with re-building the city centre was assembled (called Manchester Millennium Ltd) with Sir Alan Cockshaw as Chair. He was Chief Executive of the AMEC group in 1984 and was Chair of the Board in 1988, by which time it had become one of the largest engineering and construction companies in Europe. Richard Leese was the Deputy Chair and Kath Robinson the other representative from the Council. Also on the task force were David Trippier and Marianne Neville-Rolfe, who was a senior civil servant in the Government Office for the North West (GONW), and Tony Strachan from the Bank of England. Howard Bernstein was seconded to the task force as its Chief Executive, and members of staff were seconded from the Council, and from KPMG, NatWest Bank, GONW and other organisations.

A City Centre Sub-committee of the Policy & Resources Committee was later set up (chaired by Pat Karney) – originally with a role to co-ordinate the different council services in the city centre, but later took on new role of putting on events and entertainment to mark every shop re-opening, as a step to recovery.

The re-building plan aimed to give priority to pedestrians through the creation of active streets, squares and gardens (a far cry from Graham Stringer’s vehicle permeability). Two new public squares were created – Exchange Square and Cathedral Gardens.

On February 10th 1997, Heseltine announced a further £43 million government aid package for the city. Bernstein estimated it would lever in another £500 million from the private sector.

The City Council and the task force didn’t want to replace the Marks and Spencer bridge across Cross Street, but P&O (the head leaseholders of the Arndale Centre) wanted to keep a connection between the Arndale and Marks and Spencer. In exchange for agreeing this, the Council acquired the lease of the Shambles area (Market Place) from them.

The replacement bridge eventually cost £650,000, very expensive for it’s relatively small length. It was technically very difficult to build since the apertures on the two buildings to be joined were not at same height, didn’t face each other and were not parallel. RIBA awarded it the status of “a symbol of Manchester’s recovery from the bomb; a cutting edge symbol of modernity which captures the optimism of the city’s growth and future.”

The Old Wellington Inn and Sinclair’s Oyster Bar (Old Shambles area) were dismantled piece by piece and re-assembled 400 yards away. This was vigorously opposed by the Manchester Civic Society, but in reality the area had previously been a pigeon-infested concrete precinct. A visitor centre for the Cathedral was also built nearby.

In Richard Leese’s view, the creation of New Cathedral Street was the most radical element of the plan as it completely re-orientates the city. From the top of the Exchange Square steps one can see the Cathedral and the relocated Shambles pubs in one direction and St Ann’s Church in the other. It took two years to get agreement to all that. The Cathedral Gardens are now surrounded by the sleek, modern, glass-sided Urbis building (which cost £30 million), the Edwardian rear façade of the refurbished Corn Exchange, and the externally renovated Chetham’s School of Music.

The city’s response to the bomb has become a template for other cities, being cited as a case study in the Home Office’s document – ‘Maximising Business Resilience to Terrorist Bombings: A Handbook for Managers.’

Previous Chapter Contents List Epilogue

Editor’s Comments

Sub-headings added and some rewording of a few sentences.


[1] Supported housing (chaired by Claire Nangle); NCB review (chaired by Richard); Voluntary sector (chaired by Martin Pagel); Community Safety (chaired by Marilyn Taylor); and Local Access to services (chaired by me).

[2] The fund was administered by John Glester (former Chief Executive of CMDC).

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