As I headed to Harrogate for the LGA conference last week, it was impossible to avoid comparing that with the many previous conferences I’ve attended with the Lib Dems in just the same venue. We’re frequent flyers at Harrogate, home of our MP Phil Willis, in a conference centre he opened – if I remember the plaque correctly.
Barely months before, LDV had had its own crowded office and a successful fringe event – the recording of which is still available as a recording if you want to hear all over again – so returning for the summer events as a delegate with no special privileges and no internet access was a little painful.
So what where the differences?
Firstly it was summer. Harrogate was hot. There was no snow, and no snowdrops or those other pretty little flower bulbs that line the path. To make up for that, there are beautiful rose displays:
There certainly seemed to be more cash flowing around the LGA. There were free refreshments pretty much constantly. They fed us lunch every day for free. This does not happen for the Lib Dems. But this is clearly linked to the delegate cost, however – you can register for Lib Dem conference for a few tens of pounds if you register early enough, but the delegate fee for LGA is an eye-watering £519.
The exhibition was much bigger – and clearly didn’t have the homely Lib Dem party organisation stalls that we see at party conference. Represented were many of the governance stands we do see – the Electoral Commission, the people looking after Digital Switchover, LGIU. Companies providing services for councils, and outsourcing specialists made up the largest number of those represented. Also there were a surprising number of individual councils who felt the need for an expensive and glossy stand of their own.
It’s not surprising that companies selling things to councils wanted the stall space. After all, it’s not just the politicos who go to the LGA conference, but also senior council officers such as those represented by SOLACE (not the Bond film, the Soc of Local Authority Chief Execs). Many councils send their most important decision making team, so clearly those whose livelihoods depend on such decisions have a vested interest in showing up, and plying delegates with good coffee, popcorn, freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh fruit, squeezy toys to sit on desks for the next year, pens, paper, pads, branded Rubik’s Cubes, internet tools to play with… etc. etc.
And on reflection, perhaps it’s not surprising that some councils wanted to show off too. One of the key things the LGA is for is to help the spread of best practice from good authorities to those with, ahem, greater room for improvement. It’s not unusual for groups of councillors to visit other authorities to learn what’s going on – a few years ago, my authority ran a coach trip to London and places near it to see what councils from Southwark to Woking were doing in the field of climate change. Amongst many other things, Woking had these scary-looking autonomous streetlights:
Authorities with stories to tell about their achievements become “Beacons”; beacon authorities are supposed to share their success. So maybe it’s not such a strange thing that councils had spent money on exhibiting at the LGA.
The set in the main hall was much snazzier even than the Lib Dem one – which usually looks pretty impressive, with massive projection screens and the like. But the LGA one could change colour. It was blue for Cameron, orange for Vince, purple when we all went home. There was a sofa as well as the desk, and it could be used in several interesting ways.
Finally, there’s the Local Government Channel. After initially being a little sneery about this I ended up quite impressed. They ran a series of mini-TV slots during the day with features about hot topics in local government. There were interviews with councillors and officers, and shots of the diverse streets and facilities that councils are responsible for up and down the country. And the more I saw the more interested I got. At one point there was a feature about British Waterways – including the Foxton Locks, popularised by Jonathan Calder; later on there were interesting features on transport and social services.
But most interestingly of all, the content was also available in our hotel rooms – the Local Government Channel. They’d popped around with DVDs of their features and persuaded the hotels to play them on continuous loop. I wonder if we’ll ever see Lib Dem TV do the same?