Welcome to Manchester
The Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference and exhibition has moved to Manchester, so what can delegates expect from the annual event’s new home? Emily Rogers finds out from some people in the know
It may all seem rather different this year. Everything around you might be moving a bit faster than it did at last year’s conference. There is the unfamiliar whistle of the tram. And if you look closely in the crevices behind the conference bunting, you might make out some street party remnants of sky blue streamers.
Welcome to Manchester, a city known for the heady concoction of a vibrant music scene, football supremacy and from this year onwards, a summer influx of housing professionals.
Manchester has had an indomitable spirit since Manchester City clinched the Premier League title last month (unless you’re a United supporter). And if you’re feeling rather jaded by the shadow of economic gloom cast over the housing world, it may be worth pausing a while to charge yourself up with the buoyant buzz in the air.
You are, after all, part of a shiny new era for the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference and exhibition. After nearly 30 years in Harrogate, the biggest event in the housing calendar has moved 50 miles south west to a city that emerged among delegates as the runaway favourite new conference location in research conducted by the event organisers, Inside Housing publisher Ocean Media Group.
Many of the reasons for this boil down to bare logistics. Manchester is generally faster and cheaper to get to than Harrogate, which opens the doors to a broader range of delegates. And the new location of the event in Manchester Central, the massive conference centre in the heart of the city’s ‘convention quarter’, means that everything for delegates’ conference business, eating, sleeping, networking and social needs is in one place. This means they can spend more time immersed in dialogue with the community of around 8,000 housing professionals that is expected to flood into this self-contained quarter over the three-day event and less time traipsing around town, which is what many remember from the Harrogate days.
‘There are more hotel rooms, so more people literally staying onsite, and it will feel much more like a village,’ says CIH chief executive Grainia Long. ‘All the hotels look inwards towards the venue.
‘In very practical terms, it’s a plus being able to wear high heels most of the time. That was not possible in Harrogate, when I had to walk over the hills in flat shoes. But I’m more comfortable up high [in heels].’
It is not just in footwear terms that the organisers hope this year’s venue can help the housing world walk a bit taller.
There appears to be broad consensus with Ms Long that bringing delegates closer together under one roof is more important this year than ever. It has, in her words, been ‘quite a year’ for housing. This conference, she says, will be about people coming together to brainstorm their way through new solutions for this tough economic climate.
‘Sacred cow’ sessions have been thrown in this year, to shake people out of their established ways of thinking, headed by provocative questions such as whether grant funding is ‘really needed, or is the sector being lazy?’.
Ms Long argues that this is no time for navel-gazing, insisting that the sector must now look outside itself for answers. More speakers from other sectors, such as education campaigner Fiona Millar, have been enlisted to help delegates derive fresh lessons from other areas of public policy, such as education.
‘We have a huge amount to learn from education reforms, because they ask fundamental questions about public benefit,’ says Ms Long. ‘I’d be really happy if professionals walked away from Manchester feeling challenged and feeling that they have asked questions - and have had questions asked of them - that they’ve never thought of before.’
Delegates’ high hopes
There are high hopes among delegates for what Manchester can deliver. Some hope it can awaken a bit of fighting Blitz spirit in the beleaguered housing sector and become the scene for some communal muscle flexing.
‘I’m very conscious that given all the changes that are going on in housing at the moment, as a sector, I don’t think we’re influencing the agenda sufficiently,’ says Richard Sorenson, managing director at consultancy Tenants Matter.
Mr Sorenson says he wants delegates to come away from Manchester with ‘a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed sense of vision’ for how to make social housing relevant within the reformed social housing landscape, which he says blurs the boundary between social rented and the private rental sector.
‘I feel at the moment that the sector is having things done to it, rather than initiating things,’ he says. ‘It’s very dangerous for us as a sector if we’re not getting our message across, because we will disappear. Are we just going to become landlords, or are we going to continue to have a wider social ethos?’
Phil Lyons, chair of Southend-on-Sea’s arm’s-length management organisation South Essex Homes, sees Manchester as an opportunity for the sector to make a fresh start after the ‘same old, same old’ of Harrogate.
He wants delegates this year to find ‘a new narrative’ to demonstrate housing’s importance to communities alongside education and health. ‘It’s about trying to find a way of getting Joe Public to understand our [housing’s] place in the greater scheme of things,’ he says.
Mr Lyons believes that this new convention quarter will focus people’s minds on the more serious side of the conference, as having it all in one place will mean ‘there’s no real excuse not to attend a session any more’.
‘I personally haven’t used the words “jolly” or “jamboree” to describe Harrogate, but I’ve heard that said,’ he says. ‘I think the sessions at Harrogate took a bit of a back seat, because people ended up being so far away to these places that they didn’t have time to attend.’
As well as a fresh start, the new Manchester era also brings fresh faces, such as Jill Outhwaite, customer relations advisor at Gentoo Green, one of seven front line staff from the Sunderland-based organisation coming to conference for the first time to expand their knowledge. Ms Outhwaite and her colleagues will be taking advantage of The Ideas Exchange, a series of free seminars available to those without delegate passes. Non-delegates can also benefit from presentations at The Green Room, a new conference feature in the heart of the exhibition area, offering guidance on sustainable housing and retrofitting.
Ms Outhwaite describes her day trip as a ‘fantastic opportunity’. ‘The green department is quite new to me, so I need as much knowledge as I possibly can,’ she says. ‘My job mainly is dealing with customers face to face in their homes, so if I’ve got a better understanding of the green agenda, then I can pass that on to them.’
Excitement about Manchester is also running high in Glasgow Housing Association. Its director of housing and support services Fanchea Kelly says the new location makes it considerably easier for people in her city and across Scotland to take part ‘even in straitened times’.
GHA will be displaying its enthusiasm for this new venue by storming into it with its ‘big red truck’, a walk-in lorry to be stationed near the conference centre entrance, telling the story of the £1 billion transformation of Glasgow Council’s housing stock after GHA took it over in 2003.
Ms Kelly says she hopes this year’s conference can be all about exchanging inspirational stories, particularly on new ways of involving tenants. ‘We wanted to bring the story to Manchester,’ she says. ‘For us, bringing the truck is almost a metaphor for this new easy access [to the conference venue]. We could not have done this in Harrogate.’
Deborah McLaughlin, executive director for the north west at the Homes and Communities Agency, believes there is much in this city to inspire delegates, not least the buzz of success and optimism sparked by the recent Manchester City premiership win.
She predicts that this new city location will lend a more dynamic, businessy vibe to this year’s conference, as it will provide more meeting opportunities between housing chiefs and banks. She hopes that the can-do spirit of this city, which she says has undergone ‘such a massive regeneration and renaissance’, can inspire delegates to find proactive solutions to getting money into housebuilding projects, such as forging partnerships with each other to pull in large-scale investors such as pension funds.
‘If they all get talking among each other, they’ll realise that they’re all having similar ideas and if they collaborate, they can move forward more quickly,’ she says. ‘There is investment money out there and it’s about how they can drive that into the sector.’
Ms McLaughlin’s pride in Manchester is obviously shared by the city council’s housing director Paul Beardmore. ‘It’s really good that we now have an opportunity to show on our own doorstep to people from across the UK just what we’ve achieved,’ he says, referring to the series of study visits which have been arranged to housing projects across the city as part of the conference programme.
Mr Beardmore’s personal hope for the conference is that he ‘remains alive’ by the end of the week that the housing world descends on his patch; his diary is bursting at the seams. But his broader hope is that this event on his doorstep can lift his UK-wide housing colleagues ‘from what is currently a very, very gloomy and potentially very very depressing outlook on housing’.
‘From what I’m seeing, people are really beginning to think about different ways of delivering homes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully, the conference can bring enough of these people together to create a buzz and a lift for people concerned about what the future holds.’
Five to unwind
Feel you need a bit of time out from the three-day networkathon? Here Paul Beardmore, housing director at Manchester Council, recommends five ways to unwind in his city:
- Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square. ‘It’s an incredibly magnificent building, used for quite a few film sets, including the recent Margaret Thatcher film [The Iron Lady, featuring Meryl Streep], as it looks a bit like the Houses of Parliament.’
- The regenerated Salford Quays boasts a cluster of landmark cultural attractions including The Lowry, the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester United Football Club in Old Trafford and, more recently, MediaCityUK, the BBC’s new base. It is about 15 minutes from the city centre by Metrolink tram.
- Castlefield is an area of urban heritage - the site of the world’s first railway station and a major junction for the city’s canals. ‘The whole area is interesting and there’s an old Roman fort there where the original Manchester was,’ says Mr Beardmore. It also includes the Museum of Science & Industry in Liverpool Road. It is about 10 minutes’ walk from the conference centre.
- Cloud 23 bar at the Hilton hotel, Deansgate. Worth a visit for the cocktails and for the fantastic views over the city from the 23rd floor.
- Mr Beardmore describes the city’s bohemian Northern Quarter with its small artisan shops as a ‘nice antidote to the bright lights and the big shops’ elsewhere. It is about 20 minutes’ walk from the conference centre.