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Dispatches from Manchester - day three

The big debates and talking points from the final day of Housing 2017.

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Dispatches from Manchester - day three

Delegates at Manchester were greeted by a picket line this morning, as protestors from Unite brought their row with Mears to the doorstep of Housing 2017.

Inside the conference, early conversations were dominated by the non-appearance of the elusive new housing minister Alok Sharma, who became the first holder of the role in 22 years not to attend the annual conference.

Here are the main themes from the last day of Housing 2017:

Where’s Alok?

Our new housing minister was due to speak at the start of day three of the conference, but dropped out at the last minute, sending local government minister Marcus Jones along in his place.

Mr Jones’ speech lasted for less than 10 minutes, and he was in such a rush to leave he disappeared from the podium before the polite applause from delegates had finished – declining to take any questions.

The substance of his words contained no surprises – he praised the sector’s response to the fire and called on them to submit their panels for testing to ensure the disaster is not repeated.

Orr’s plea unheeded

Those delegates who left the bar early enough to catch Newsnight last night would have seen a familiar face.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, used a headline appearance on the programme to call for the testing of cladding to stop.

Mr Orr said the results – 120 failures from 120 tests – conclusively show the product isn’t suitable and the focus (and government cash) must now move to tearing it down.

This message clearly didn’t resonate with Mr Jones though, who told the audience that the failure rate “highlights the importance of the testing process”.

There but for the grace of God

Around the conference bars and coffee stands, conversation about Grenfell has of course dominated.

But, with the number of panels failing combustibility tests rising on a near daily basis, there is a sense from the sector that some of the issues represent structural problems in the industry rather than any particular negligence by those directly involved.

“The reality is we all know it’s a case of there but for the grace of God go I,” said one delegate.

Indeed, at a session on the fire, David Montague, the respected chief executive of giant London-based housing association L&Q, said: “It could have been anybody. It could have been anybody in the sector.”

No time to waste

The influential Lord Andrew Adonis appeared at the closing keynote session to warn the sector (and government) not to delay on action in response to Grenfell due to the public inquiry.

“What tends to happen with these public inquiries,” he warned, “is everybody says that they should leave taking any serious action until the public inquiry’s been reported and that they can’t deal with all these difficult questions until after the inquiry.

“It’s very important that we don’t delay all action and all improvements and any bold attempt to address this serious problem of the shortage of social housing in central London, that we don’t park all of that until this inquiry has reported.”

Back to work

With these messages ringing in their ears, it is back to work for delegates.

The sector faces arguably its gravest ever challenge – it must respond appropriately to one of the worst peacetime disasters this country has ever seen.

Alongside this, ongoing debates about homelessness, affordability, supply and welfare reform must not get totally drowned out.

But the first priority for everyone in the sector right now is to make sure that within all the debate, conjecture and demand for knee jerk action, it gets the response to Grenfell right. The stakes could not be higher.

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A roundup of Housing 2017 A roundup of Housing 2017

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