Posted by: Colin Wiles28/06/2011
So Harrogate is no more and next year the great and the not so good of the housing world will assemble at Manchester.
The CIH has been holding its annual conference at Harrogate since 1982 (although it veered off to Brighton in 1983 and 1984). For many in the sector it has been a must-attend event - a place where friendships have been made and renewed; a place of passionate debates, important policy announcements and lots of learning. It’s seen speeches from Tony Blair, Prince Phillip, Princess Anne, and countless here-today, gone-tomorrow housing ministers. But I know some senior figures in the sector who refuse to go, because Harrogate has always been afflicted by some negative images and stereotypes - the boozing and schmoozing, the beer-bellied northern councilors sinking pints of ale into the early hours, the larger tenants on mobility scooters hovering up freebies in the exhibition halls, the extravagant displays and free merchandise that ends up in landfill. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the hospitality on offer, because ultimately tenants are paying for the whole show. The lack of hotels also damaged Harrogate’s reputation. Who wants to commute in from Leeds or Ripon and, more importantly, get back there after a few drinks?
But above all, Harrogate is a posh Spa town that has a dearth of social housing on its doorstep. It’s been like holding a mountaineering convention in The Fens. It just hasn’t portrayed the right image for our sector. By contrast, Manchester will be gritty and serious, and it sits at the heart of a cornucopia of interesting housing schemes that delegates will be able to visit during their trip. Manchester is also easier to get to and has a better range of hotels, bars, restaurants and cultural attractions.
Harrogate itself seems remarkably complacent about losing the CIH conference - which makes a £3 million annual contribution to town’s economy. The leader of the Council Don Mackenzie (who also chairs the International Conference Centre Board), said: “I am sorry this prestigious event has chosen to relocate and we will work hard to win it back again for future years…organisers of events will switch, from time to time, from one location to another.” Apparently, conferences contribute £180 million to the town each year - a figure I find hard to believe given that the the CIH conference is one of its largest.
I’ve been going to the conference on and off since Brighton in 1984. I’m probably the only person ever to stay in a tent in Harrogate for conference week (in 2001 - much better than being stuck in a hotel in Leeds!). By all accounts the final conference this year was one of the best ever, with passionate speeches from Paddy Gray and Sarah Webb (and a rather complacent response from Grant Shapps it has to be said). I’m still not sure the sector has fully grasped the level of antipathy towards social housing from many within this government. The CIH AGM agreed a whole range of membership and governance reforms that should help to streamline its business and improve the way it is run. Most AGMs are dull affairs, but I found this one moving and momentous. Like most people I left Harrogate with a slight sense of sadness but I’m looking forward to a new and different experience in Manchester.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles