For nearly 30 years housing’s great and good have gathered in North Yorkshire every summer. As the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference and exhibition prepares to move to Manchester, Lydia Stockdale finds out what the delegates will remember most fondly
That’s it - after nearly three decades of the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference and exhibition being held at Harrogate International Centre, north Yorkshire, it’s on the move. From next year forward, the flagship event is being held in Manchester, at the Central Convention Complex.
The very first CIH annual conference and exhibition was held in Harrogate in 1982. It made a detour to Brighton in 1983 and 1984, before returning to North Yorkshire in 1985 where it’s taken place every year since.
The event is being relocated to better meet the needs of more than 6,000 individuals who attend each year. But for many of the housing professionals who’ve made the trip to Harrogate every year for decades, this week’s final event in the spa town will have been tinged with nostalgia.
To celebrate their fond memories, Inside Housing has gathered readers’ recollections of the many and varied speakers that have made an appearance at the conference, the countless debates and policy announcements, the imaginative exhibitors, the dinners, the parties, and - not to be forgotten - the contacts and friends that have been made over the years.
Ged Walsh, business and development director of Yorkshire Housing, will look back at his annual trip to Harrogate with affection. He’s been attending the conference and exhibition for more than 20 years, like many seasoned conference-goers he says he will miss Harrogate’s ‘village feel’.
Finding accommodation in Harrogate is notoriously tricky. The Majestic Hotel is where the conference’s keenest partygoers want to stay, because it’s traditionally been where the end-of-conference disco has been held.
SLHG’s Ms Fadden recalls how last year, for the first time, she and her team all managed to book rooms in the Majestic - ‘and then it burned down’.
Thankfully, they were all booked in again this year, just in time for their last trip to north Yorkshire.
Bill Payne, chief executive of Metropolitan Housing Partnership, remembers the time, in 1995, when he was vice president of the CIH, and he stayed in a caravan about a mile out of Harrogate town centre. ‘It was an early value for money initiative,’ he jokes.
Although there was nothing wrong with the caravan, ever since then he’s stayed at the same bed and breakfast where each year the landlady, Jennifer, reserves a room she calls ‘Bill’s room’.
‘The landladies of Harrogate now all know about housing,’ says Mr Payne. ‘Ask Jennifer about the housing revenue account and she’ll be able to talk to you about it.
2. The speakers
Former prime minister Tony Blair is just one of the notable speakers who’ve addressed housing professionals at the CIH conference. He spoke in 1994 when he was shadow secretary of state for home affairs.
‘I remember that conference hall was the fullest it’s ever been,’ recalls Yorkshire Housing’s Mr Walsh. It was the early 1990s and ‘people were fed up with the current [Conservative] government’, he continues. ‘Everyone knew [Mr Blair] was going somewhere - anybody who was interested in politics went to see him speak.’
Other notable addresses have come from Princess Anne, who attended in 2000, and the Duke of Edinburgh, who made a speech in 1991.
Housemark’s Mr Gillis was working for the CIH at the time. He remembers being backstage when the duke arrived. ‘We were all lined up, and were told he would be entering the stage from the right and that only the most senior members of staff were to talk to him. However, he ended up entering stage left, and the first person he met was the most junior person on the team, who looked terrified, but who he talked to for about five minutes.’
‘Some VIP speakers behave outrageously in the green room,’ says Sarah Webb, chief executive of the CIH.
Paul Diggory, chief executive at North Wales Housing recalls one particular backstage moment involving feminist professor Germaine Greer, who spoke in 2007. When she arrived, a sound engineer approached her with a lapel mike. Seasoned TV pundit Professor Greer was obviously all-too-used to these contraptions and said: ‘I’m a woman in a summer dress - hello! Where am I going to put it?’ At which point, she lifted up her dress [so the microphone could be attached to her underwear]. ‘It’s the only place it can go’, she said.
As it turns out, the sound engineer found a less cheeky place for Professor Greer’s mike.
Throughout the 13 years of the previous Labour government, no less that nine housing ministers addressed the housing conference.
‘It’s become normal to have to cope with a government reshuffle - usually the weekend before the delegates arrive,’ says Ms Webb.
‘There was a new minister every year,’ adds Jan Taranczuk, a director at Pinnacle Consulting. ‘Their opening speech would always include the line, “I’m here to listen”, which would be met with a groan.
In 2001, newly appointed housing minister Charles Falconer attended the conference for the first time. He wasn’t intending to stop over but he soon got into the swing of it and decided to stay. The only problem was that the now Lord Falconer did not have a clean shirt so the conference team had to rush out to buy him one.
Midland Heart’s chief executive Tom Murtha, says that the formation of his organisation from a merger of Keynote Housing Group and Prime Focus in 2006 came out as a result of a conversation with former Midland Heart chief executive Richard Clark, which took place over a dinner in Harrogate.
Meanwhile, Mick Leggett, now chief executive of Cross Keys Homes in Peterborough, says that Harrogate has been a place where problems can be solved. He recalls how, in the 1990s he found out about the site for the Brentford Foyer, which works with unemployed and homeless young people, through an informal chat at an exhibition stand at Harrogate.
Outgoing CIH president Paddy Gray, who is professor of Housing at the University of Ulster, says that attending the CIH conference and exhibition has helped many people further their careers. ‘When I was a lecturer, it was where I lined up work experience placements for my students. For example, Martin Armstrong, now chief executive of Glasgow Housing Association was a student of mine, and I got him a placement at Glasgow Council while I was there,’ he recalls.
Although there are countless memories of evening events at Harrogate, most of them are not fit for print.
But everybody remembers football-related events, with the World Cup coinciding with the conference every four years.
Cross Keys’ Mr Leggett particularly remembers when England beat Tunisia 2-0 in the 1998 event. ‘It was perfect timing. It was at the beginning of the conference and the whole event was a lot happier because of that win.’
Then, of course, there was last year’s England v Slovenia World Cup game, which took place on the Wednesday of the conference. England was victorious again, winning the game 1-0. Although, let’s not mention the rest of the tournament.
A terrific amount of effort has gone into some of the exhibition stands at Harrogate over the years. The stand that Nigel Wilson, chief executive of north west-based housing association Parkway Green Housing Trust, remembers most clearly is Gentoo’s penguin-themed display which won the annual ‘best stand’ competition in 2009. ‘Visitors got to take away a toy penguin and give it a better standard of living,’ explains Sarah Todd, a spokesperson for Gentoo.
Parkway Green’s Mr Wilson admits he’s still got his. ‘It was great idea that resulted in quite a rush for the penguins.’
Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls, director at social housing contractor United House, remembers a time about three years ago, when Connaught, the contractor that has since gone bust, had a stand which was completely empty. ‘There was note saying it “wasn’t having a stand this year”, and it was “giving the money to charity instead”. You could have seen the demise of Connaught coming,’ he says.
6. Historical moments
Midland Heart’s Mr Murtha remembers getting on stage at the 1982 conference to talk about a ‘race in housing’ report he’d written on the need to start keeping a record of the ethnicity of staff and tenants.
‘It was the year after the Toxteth and Brixton riots and the sector was being challenged on its work on race relations. I got a hostile reception,’ he recalls.
When his session was over, Mr Murtha says he felt, ‘quite low’. ‘I had had a few drinks, fell asleep on the train and missed my connection at Leeds, so I had to sleep at the station,’ he laughs.
For Housemark’s Mr Gillis, who has attended 24 consecutive CIH conference and exhibitions in Harrogate, the most memorable moment came in 1998 - the year after the UK returned Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China.
‘There were a lot of people at the conference from the old Hong Kong [CIH] branch - they were there to show their allegiance to the CIH’, he says. To mark this moment, the conference organisers ‘lowered a union flag at the back of the conference hall,’ he remembers.