The Chartered Institute of Housing’s South West conference in Torquay seems to have been a success this year, in spite of the cutbacks that have hit sponsorship budgets and delegate numbers and made events like this much more difficult to put on.
The CIH is a key partner for the HCA and this is a really important event for us to be involved in, particularly at a time of reorganisation when colleagues who are new to the patch have the opportunity to meet the sector’s leading local figures and understand the issues that drive delivery here. Even though our sponsorship of the event is a thing of the past, I am glad we maintained a delegate presence this year (NB: three of us were guests, including two speakers).
I certainly found attending yesterday worthwhile, made some good contacts and found out a few nuggets of information which I would not have known if I had stayed in the office. Here are some of the more noteworthy discoveries, along with some thoughts about the event itself.
1. A new Labour Government would probably not overhaul the Affordable Rent programme: Despite having reservations about the Government’s plans to deliver 150,000 new homes through the Affordable Rent programme (which are well documented elsewhere), Shadow Housing Minister and Plymouth MP Alison Seabeck told the conference that Labour may not reverse the policy it if it won the election in 2015.
She said she thought the 80% rent model is ‘problematic’ and could ‘increase the Housing Benefit Bill’, but added: “We will need to look as a party at how we can soften it at the edges. It would not help the sector if we just wound it back to ground zero.”
Much of the detail around Labour’s thinking on housing will not be clarified until the party conference later this year. But this will give some comfort to providers who have expressed concerns that lenders will not support the new programme because they fear it will be scrapped after four years.
2. Micheal Portillo and Diane Abbott go back a long way: Keynote speaker Michael Portillo is living proof of how a politician can be transformed after leaving the glare of frontbench politics. That awful ‘Portillo moment’ in 1997 when he lost his seat and the chance to lead his party (which he described yesterday as tantamount to ‘eating a bucketload of shit in public’) was voted by Channel 4 viewers as their third best moment of the 20th century, and was also highly ranked in the Observer in 1999. Quite an accolade, and one that illustrates just how far the ‘future Prime Minister’ had fallen from grace by the time he was voted out of office. Now, as Seabeck acknowledged before he took to the stage, Portillo is something of a national treasure. I think he’s a big loss to politics.
He undoubtedly benefits from the freedom to be candid in a way he could never be if he was still in Government. He admitted, for example, to ‘despairing’ at politicians who have ‘encouraged’ a housing boom, and stated that the economy needs a fall in house prices to kick start the market (which no frontbench politician would dare admit in public).
The most interesting comment he made yesterday though (which is probably well-known, but not by me) was that his relationship with Labour firebrand MP Diane Abbott predates their time together on the This Week sofa by a few decades, and stretches back to their school days. Fascinating then that they should grow up at different ends of the political spectrum before coming together to make a decent double act late every Thursday night.
3. The public sector had a low profile this year: Not particularly surprising given the cuts to the public sector (with communications budgets especially badly hit), but the profile of local authorities was in stark contrast to last year, which was also my first conference.
I did not spot a single public sector exhibitor or sponsor yesterday, although there were a few familiar local authority faces in the crowd amongst the delegates. All of the main sponsors seemed to be split between private companies and housing providers. In keeping with this trend, we did not sponsor or exhibit this year, and sent a small number of people to network, speak and take part in the workshops.
Although some would lament the restraint on sponsorship, I do not think it is always necessary for the public sector to have a branded profile at events like this, and certainly not at a time when it is consulting on redundancies. We are not selling anything, and are not a new player on the block who needs to ‘make a noise’. People there know who we are, and want to hear what we have to say.
It is more important, in my view, to use these events to convey key messages through your spokespeople to ensure that people understand who you are and what you do. With speakers, participation at the key workshops and some media coverage from one of the speeches, we have hopefully managed to achieve this without the stand and bags of branded pens. I’d prefer to leave that to those with something to flog.
4. The conference should be more ‘plugged in’: Anyone who’s been to the Palace Hotel in Torquay knows it is not the most modern conference venue. Splendid setting though it is, it can also be difficult to catch a mobile signal, and wi-fi access is non-existent. I may be alone in finding this a pain, but for a sector that is innovative, hard-working and flexible, it does feel strange to come here and be virtually cut off from the outside world (unless you stand in the reception, perhaps).
One person told me her colleague could only get a phone signal if he placed his phone on top of his bedroom door. I didn’t ask how he found that out.
In many ways, though, this approach is also reflected in the way the CIH markets the conference. The website is flat and not always up-to-date. I think there is potential to include more video footage from the conference as well as uploading the presentations. And, despite many delegates using social media to communicate about the conference (the hashtag #cihsw was well used on Twitter, although not always from the venue itself), evidence of CIH South West engaging with this activity is difficult to spot.
Even without this, however, they managed to sell out on both days, so maybe they feel they don’t need to do it. I think they do though. These sort of improvements makes the conference more workable, which would certainly help those of us who need to be connected when out of the office.
Maybe I am in a minority on the final point. It won’t stop me from going next year, assuming I’m still able to attend. I’ll just have to remember to send those emails on the train to Torquay. Hats off to the team, anyway, for organising a successful and extremely useful conference.