Liverpool was wetter, greyer and certainly didn’t have the upbeat feel of last year’s sunny, seaside Labour conference in Brighton. Staying in the new Pullman, the conference hotel, was interesting as every lift journey was travelled in the company of a familiar face. Robert Peston, John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn to name a few. The hotel certainly surpassed expectations. Great design was coupled with exemplary service and a breakfast buffet to rival the best. My favourite feature was the state of the art shower, operated by the touch of a button, so there was no time wasted working out how to achieve a hot shower.
First stop was The New West End Company BID retail and tourism lunch with London Deputy Mayor for Business Rajesh Agrawal. With guests representing Heathrow airport, luxury brands, tax free shopping and retail stores the debate was wide ranging and illuminating. Professor Tony Travers shone the spotlight firmly on Oxford Street saying it is a powerful name but that it needs attention now as Crossrail will generate more international interest. The areas around the Crossrail stations must look good when Crossrail opens.
Concern was expressed about the need for new slots at Heathrow for China flights. Apparently Paris has twice our capacity. ‘London is missing out’ said our Heathrow representative with the high spending Chinese tourists firmly in mind. The aim should be to make it as easy as possible for tourists, students and business people to come to London. Everybody round the table agreed that we need a decision (especially post Brexit, interjected London First’s Baroness Jo Valentine).
Charlotte Keesing from luxury umbrella group, Walpole, talked about the huge contribution the luxury business makes to the UK economy. The issue of visas was raised and the urgent need to make it easier for Chinese and other high spending tourists to come to the UK if we are not to lose out to other global cities.
The importance of connectivity and free wifi were raised by the Deputy Mayor, just back from an industry trip to New York where they are using redundant phone booths to supply wifi. He says the Mayor’s office is looking at the infrastructure options for London.
Tony Travers said the Brexit vote was interpreted as being anti immigration with the idea that in the absence of immigrants, UK workers will get jobs. But, he said, 63% of hospitality industry workers are immigrants. London produces 10% of UK GDP and a massive 2 million workers out of 5 million are from overseas so it’s hard to see how we would operate without workers from overseas. Sir Peter Rogers suggested the Mayor could have an impact on the skills and ensure skills taught in our schools tied in with the skills London businesses needed.
Next stop was a New Statesman /NHBC panel on how we are going to build the housing we need. It was standing room only. A key message was the need for high quality as well as quantity. SME developers are being encouraged to build to help increase output. Brian Berry of the Federation of Master Builders made a good point that it’s not just about new build but we also need policy for retrofitting our existing housing stock. Former housing minister John Healey MP said Jeremy Corbyn was wrong calling for only 200,000 homes a year. We need 300,000 a year to make up the backlog. He suggested reducing the cap on council spending and investing £3 billion into housing. He sees it as government with its hand behind the back of private sector. Property is cyclical so government needs to guarantee. Polls show housing is a top concern along with the NHS and economy so we need to come up with alternatives. He said that 2 million new homes were built under Labour. The panel Chair pointed out there has been a decline in numbers since 1970s so the backlog couldn’t be blamed on the Conservatives. He referred to a commitment made by Theresa May, meaning Teresa Pearce, (who is apparently now Shadow Housing Minister although I haven’t seen an announcement!) ‘Freudian slip’ shouted an audience member. Generally the conference fringe programme was very short on housing or other real estate related content compared to previous years.
The conference highlight for me was our ‘Property Shapers’ Labour Party Conference Dinner which we co-hosted this year with London Communications Agency. The theme ‘from town hall to Whitehall : collaboration or confrontation’ proved to be very appropriate. The debate was deftly chaired once again by Estates Gazette editor Damian Wild, (see Estates Gazette for his comments). Our eminent guests were drawn from central and local government and development and included Sir Keir Starmer QC MP and Deputy Mayor James Murray who both addressed the gathering. Sir Keir’s message was that MPs aren’t everything and regional labour councils and mayors should lead the way. In the wake of our Collaborator of the Year Award at the recent Estates Gazette Awards Dinner, it was encouraging to hear Deputy Mayor James Murray say that collaboration is the way forward. And it was also good to hear Claire Kober, London Councils Chair and Leader of Haringey Council, say that our dinner provides a good opportunity for conversation.
Is a future Labour going to be regional asked London expert, Tony Travers, as seemed to be the logical conclusion of Sir Keir Starmer’s comments. Clearly London needs particular policy solutions since as Tony Travers pointed out, London provides 30% of the entire UK tax take but forms only 14% of the UK population.
One London Labour council leader guest expressed concern about the extreme left in their party. He admitted that, ‘their policies scare the pants off me!’ Martin Bellinger of Essential, one of the event sponsors, pointed to the current prevailing uncertainty with a new London City Hall regime plus a new central government. Tony Travers declared developers to be ‘parastates’ referencing the fact that they are expected to provide social housing and infrastructure which in other countries are provided by the state. To achieve planning approval, developers have to go through a mixture of a planning system and a negotiated tax system. Travers remarked on the strangeness of a system where local communities attack developers’ plans and then ask them to build stuff.
Discussion turned to the distinction between the inner London boroughs, generally pro business and the outer London boroughs. The importance of collaboration between public and private sectors was underlined with a call for more powers for local authorities. There was also a call for the reduction in powers of s.151 officers who are responsible for local authority financial affairs, as they are seen as standing in the way of development.
So, as the dinner ended and we made our way back, we discovered that Uber is as big an issue in Liverpool as it is in London. We were harangued loudly by a local cab driver for taking an Uber back to the hotel!