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Conservative Party Conference 2017
 Article 
Author
Susan Freeman
Date
06 October 2017

Conservative Party Conference 2017

There was such a large police presence in Brighton when we arrived for our Sunday night Conference dinner that I almost didn't get through the security cordon and had to produce the guest list and seating plan for the police before they believed I was an essential component of our event. We were delighted to have London Deputy Mayor for Housing, James Murray as a guest once again at our Mishcon de Reya and LCA 'Property Shapers' Dinner sponsored by Sanctuary Investments, Essential and New West End Company. Our topic for discussion was whether confrontation or collaboration will mark the way forward for the industry which was particularly appropriate. As well as some key London council leaders, our guests included Eamonn Boylan CEO of Greater Manchester's Combined Authority and Trafford Council Leader Sean Anstee to ensure we moved beyond our London comfort zone. It was clear from our far ranging discussion that our guests saw public/private sector collaboration as essential and our debate chairman, Estates Gazette editor Damian Wild asked if it's getting easier. Tony Travers as always came up with some interesting research. This time from The Legatum Institute which he said shows that the public see over-development and that even conservative voters don't have a good view of business. There was encouraging discussion about political parties working together in collaboration because 'it’s the right thing to do.' But as Steve Norris flagged, collaboration relies on both sides having reasonable expectations. He also commented that we live in the most polarised political times in the last 30 years . There was general concern round the table that the existing cross party cooperation between London council leaders could be at serious risk after the local elections next year as the Labour Party pulls further to the left. There was also discussion around whether devolution deals would be honoured. Westminster Council had just announced their plan for a voluntary rates contribution for homes above £10m value which was well received and there was discussion around the need for a dynamic valuation system for tax. There were calls for 'brave politicians' to tackle some of the issues around rates, business rates and stamp duty. Frustration was expressed that central government aren't doing more for build to rent development which is part of the solution to the housing crisis and has a big impact on productivity. It was a great discussion which continued over drinks well into the early hours at the Radisson Blu Bar.

As always the hub of the Conference was the London Lounge which is invariably the hangout of choice for the party heavyweights. At one point you couldn't move for ministers and press. There was no shortage of Conference housing fringe events. Sadly the timing of some of them clashed. The Core Cities Panel chaired by Tony Travers carried on the devolution theme and looked at what we can do to empower our cities. There were calls to 'lift the game of all our cities' as we currently have one of the most centralised governments in the western world.  There was discussion around whether councils are equipped to cope with devolution and whether councillors have the necessary skill sets. This was a recurring theme at the conference with suggestions that councillors are sometimes selected on their leaflet dropping skills! There was also much discussion at the conference of the issue of gentrification. Tony Travers posed the (rhetorical?) question of whether gentrification can be reclaimed as a positive word. Concerns were expressed at this panel and at other conference sessions as to whether the government will have time for anything other than Brexit.

New West End Company hosted a fascinating lunch on international tourism. Guest speaker was Tourism Minister John Glen MP and  guests included senior players in the hospitality, retail and aviation sectors. The success of the Great campaign was acknowledged. It was agreed that we need greater collaboration to encourage tourism across the country rather than just in London. London has moved from 7th to 5th place as a tourist destination (World Economic Forum). London is regarded as a shining beacon and other cities need to come forward. Brexit gives us an opportunity to retell our story and we need to do it better. All agreed on the need for more clarity around jobs and visas. It was felt that a 10 year cost competitive visa would enable us to win back Chinese high spenders from other more tourist-friendly destinations. There were also concerns around the time taken to get tourists through security when they arrive. The work done by London BIDs particularly around public realm was praised. There were ongoing concerns that business rates are not retained locally. For instance, of business rates collected in Westminster only 4% is retained locally. There were calls for a radical overhaul of business rates which is regarded as a 20th century tax and not fit for purpose.

The fringe programme wasn't short on housing events. The problem was that they overlapped timewise and were in different parts of the city. Housing Minister Alok Sharma MP and London Deputy Mayor for Housing James Murray were kept very busy.  An interesting panel was the ConservativeHome event on 'building the quality homes that Britain needs'. The event was packed with standing room only. The panel included the Housing Minister, David Montague CEO of L&Q housing association and the CEO of house builder Barratts. By this time the wind was so strong that it seemed the roof of the marquee was going to be blown off! Was this stormy weather indicative of the way the conference was going? The negative view of housing/construction was mentioned. Montague outlined plans to build 100K new homes and explained that L&Q take a long term, 40 to 50 year view. He needs skilled labour. Half of construction workers are from the EU and there is a skills crisis. He wants the government to say that skilled workers are welcome wherever they come from. The Housing Associations sector has been down-rated by the rating agencies  because of Brexit uncertainty. We need a long term post Brexit plan for investment, he said. The Housing Minister pointed out that the average Housing Minister tenure has been just 11 months! (In my view this isn't helpful if the government really wants to tackle the housing crisis). The Minister talked about the upcoming green paper on social housing, the benefits of custom building and the need for different tenures, support for SME builders and the need for more build to rent investment. There was a useful intervention from Pocket's Marc Vlessing who said 50% of Pocket's construction is modular why don't we celebrate the innovation we have across the country.  Nick Boyson Smith from Create Streets highlighted the lack of supply and that surveys showed that people preferred old homes to new so we should find out what people want and build it. Montague called for courageous leadership and named Barking as a local authority as showing leadership that makes a difference. He also called for and cross party consensus for future investment. The Minister saw the housing white paper as a blue print to fix the housing market. Let's hope so although  concern remains around how we increase productivity if the private sector hasn't the capacity to build more against a backdrop of a skills crisis.

My last panel of the day was the City of Westminster affordable housing panel chaired by Leader Cllr Nickie Aiken. She was joined by London Deputy Mayor James Murray, Berkeley's Tony Pidgley, David Orr and Pocket Living's Nick Cuff. Tony Pidgley talked about the work Berkeley have done in regenerating estates and the importance of collaborating with the community. Deputy Mayor James Murray cited the spirit of collaboration that has characterised his first year in office. He also remarked that planning can be improved but recognised that we can't expect it to be the answer. Nick Cuff advocated a return to state house building as the private sector can't cope.

Next stop was an excellent and well attended City Corporation dinner at the iconic Manchester Art Gallery. Visit it if you get the chance!

Cllr Robert Davis hosted a lunch on keeping our talent in creative industries and the hospitality sector. Again the importance of partnership was raised as guests stressed the importance of local authorities working in partnership with hospitality to train and create skills. It was felt that local authorities could do a lot more to get people into work. There were concerns that qualifications don't necessarily provide the right business skills. However the hospitality industry could do more to attract people, appear at careers fairs etc. An interesting discussion centred around British attitude to service which may discourage young people from a career in hospitality. The different attitude in other countries was remarked on. It was suggested that a rebranding exercise was required to change attitudes. There was great concern as to the consequences of Brexit for the hospitality sector.

My final event before heading home was the Policy Exchange panel in the Manchester Art Gallery entitled 'why can't we build the homes we need?' The panel included the Housing Minister once again, Former Deputy Mayor for Housing, Ric Blakeway, Adam Challis from JLL, Eleanor Mills from the Sunday Times and Susan Emmett of Policy Exchange. The Minister was the first to use the 'collaborative' word saying he wanted a collaborative process and fairness in the housing market. Adam Challis flagged 'big structural shifts' in the white paper which he felt provides a roadmap and potential to chase targets for housing which have felt unattainable. He noted the paper's ambition across a range of tenures. Perceptively he highlighted that political cycles are much quicker than build programmes causing political risk for developers. The spike in impressions for my tweet on this indicates the comment struck a chord. The importance of digital construction was stressed as was the role of build to rent. The next wave of place making will need to be transformative and demonstrate better placemaking ability. Challis also made the point that local authorities represent a crucial part of this and need to be part of the conversation. It will be a more difficult conversation with the direction the centre of the Labour party. It fell to Eleanor Mills to put the less optimistic view that 'people can't afford to buy' and nothing is coming through. She also touched on the generational divide. Susan Emmett said Jeremy Corbyn had put housing on centre stage with talk of CPOs, seizing land and the government needs to look at housing in the round. A warning from Adam Challis that the property industry will not survive in its current form referencing the Mark Farmer Report, modernise or die.

I'm not sure the question why can't we build the homes we need was answered but it was an interesting debate. Fortunately I headed home before the PM's conference speech but the trailed announcements re council housing sounded promising.