First Impressions: Conservative Party Conference 2013

Having narrowly survived my first Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, here are some first impressions. I was unprepared for the Secure Zone which had come up casually in conversations about conference passes and is not unlike the MIPIM security cordon. However REED MIDEM haven’t (yet) resorted to armed police guards with unnerving machine guns and airport style body checks, which come as a bit of a shock to the uninitiated. The practical effect is that many of the surrounding roads are closed which makes access difficult and taxis drop you off further away than where you started, having taken most circuitous routes to get you there. Walking isn’t much better as every pedestrian journey was allegedly ‘only 10 minutes’ but of course was much longer, especially in stilts. Plus you have to add extra time for getting through security.

Once admitted to the Secure Zone, you encounter familiar looking people on all sides: as you would expect, leading politicians from both central and local government, businessmen and women and journalists, but also (and unexpectedly) the occasional celebrity. Tom Jones was spotted in the corridors of power as was an Elvis lookalike! If you are in any way ‘important’ it’s mandatory to have at least two minders in tow to carry your files and navigate you between your engagements. I was impressed by the gruelling itineraries of many Ministers and MPs who were being rushed around from one speaking engagement to the next from early morning until well into the night. Unsurprisingly, there was the occasional mishap with a double booking or mistaken venue.

There was so much of interest and relevance to the real estate sector that it is perhaps surprising more property companies aren’t there.  One corporate affairs director I spoke to volunteered that he thought it was ‘shocking’ that commercial property wasn’t better represented at the Conference. Housing is of course well up the Conference agenda at present with many fringe events and receptions – an impressive 24 in total – coordinated by housing groups and the RIBA under the banner ‘A United House For Housing’. I noted that only one of those events (referred to below) focused on the quality and the design aspects of housing rather than quantity. The Conference was a good platform from which to promote The Big Think on the Future of London, the series of linked debates on London issues which Mishcon de Reya has been co-hosting with Pat Brown of Central and with Property Week as media partner.  A number of our Big Think issues, such as providing housing for Londoners, were debated. Full marks for initiative have to go to Rob Tinknell for exhibiting his Battersea Power Station scheme which attracted much Ministerial attention as their corteges moved between Maggie’s Shop and the Red Ed Lion Pub.

Apart from the main Agenda, which is pretty well covered by the press, hundreds of ‘fringe events’ take place both inside and outside the Security Zone. Careful selection is vital as many happen concurrently but in different parts of the City. As with my first ever MIPIM visit, I was extremely grateful to the old hands who pointed me in the direction of ‘useful’ events. For instance the popular Conservative Eastern region drinks reception where Prime Minister David Cameron made an impassioned address to an intimate gathering of supporters. Also the Tri-Borough reception hosted by City of Westminster, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – a great example of local authorities working together to maximise resources – at which Eric Pickles MP spoke.

The British Property Federation led by Liz Peace and Bill Hughes co-hosted a very well attended dinner with London & Quadrant on Britain’s housing needs and aspirations. A lively debate ensued with a good mix of public and private sector views winding up with promises that at least one Private Rented Sector development will be underway by the next conference. It was Chatham House rules so with particular apologies to Henry Pryor, nothing concrete can be revealed!

John Lewis Partnership and Westminster Property Association (WPA) organised an excellent breakfast chaired by Soho Estates Chairman, and fellow Property Week columnist Steve Norris. A thought provoking discussion on the retail and regeneration issues facing retail owners and local authorities included contributions from Westminster Councillor Robert Davis, John Lewis Property Director Andrew Murphy, WPA President Dan van Gelder, Shaftesbury’s Brian Bickell and Housing Deputy Mayor Rick Blakeway. Fragmentation of ownership was identified as a major obstacle so it will be interesting to see if Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) can bridge the gap and play an even greater role.

I hotfooted it by cab back to the Main Auditorium just in time for Boris Johnson’s address to the nation. PM David Cameron had trailed this in his speech the night before as ‘BoJo Day’! As we have become accustomed at MIPIM, where the world mobs the London Stand for a glimpse of the ‘yellow haired mayor’, there was standing room only. Although not much of substance was said, and a number of the jokes are wearing a little thin, the crowd shrieked with appreciation for our rock star mayor.

Then on to a fringe panel debate on The Future of Affordable Housing in London and the SE, an interesting session with John Carleton of Genesis and Deputy Mayor Rick Blakeway (again!) Rick Blakeway put the case for financial independence for London saying half the UK’s stamp duty is collected in London and it should result in more benefit for Londoners. (Agreed!) John Carleton, pointing to the sheer demand for his facilities, said that by 2030 the number of over 85s will be double compared to three years ago. At the other end of the scale, a quarter of all parents have 25 to 40 year olds still living at home. You are constantly bombarded with stats at the Conference!

On to my final fringe panel event ‘How better designed housing could win over the NIMBYs’ with Planning Minister Nick Boles, Barratts CEO Mark Clare and representatives of CPRE and Policy Exchange, which was top stuff. Encouragingly Mr Boles recognised that if you invest early in design then you raise the value of the whole scheme in the long term. He asked why don’t we see more self-build which could provide variety and innovation? The problem of self-funding through the prolonged planning process was identified as an obstacle. In fact the cost and delay of the planning process was regularly maligned at Conference events but with no apparent solutions – although one audience member queried why local authorities couldn’t work together more. The Q&A session was hijacked by a certain Mr Grimsey demanding to know what progress Mr Boles had made with change of use of redundant high street retail to residential. Mr Boles agreed ‘planning shouldn’t get in the way’ and referred him to Mark Prisk, Housing Minister for ‘anything more proactive’.

Unlike MIPIM, food doesn’t seem to feature much other than at formal roundtable debates, and the quality of ‘refreshments’ is variable depending on the budget of the sponsor or organiser. The best was definitely at the Infrastructure Debate at The Midland Hotel which I sadly had to leave as my BlackBerry died mid email to the office and had to be resuscitated by the unflappable concierge at the Midland who was recharging a bank of mobiles that had buckled under the heavy email and twitter traffic. The most useful advice I can give to any novices intending to make the journey? Take a spare battery and a pair of flat shoes.