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  1. Wealth
October 2, 2011

Conservative Party Conference blog

By Spear's

You can follow my blog from fringe meetings, key speeches and many of Manchester’s cultural charms here

Wednesday 10.30am
My final dispatch from Manchester before I get my train is something I’ve just remembered from last night. While scurrying to the Hugh Grant/Hacked Off event, I saw transport secretary Philip Hammond, so I asked him about HS2, the massive new trainline which will roar through the countryside between London and Birmingham. As part of our Save Britain’s Historic Landscape campaign, we’re obviously not wild about it.

Was he worried about the damage HS2 would cause to the landscape and particularly to historic houses and English heritage? ‘Some damage will be inflicted’ to landscape and heritage. ‘The government has to make tough choices.’

Doesn’t sound good for historic house owners or fans of the countryside.

Tuesday 9.10pm
I have got back to my hotel for a disco nap [read: blogging session]. Our event with Ed Vaizey was a resounding success – he gave a frank but optimistic talk about getting the wealthy to give more, and our audience consisted of philanthropists, politicians and people from the third sector. A full transcript and photos will be on the website soon, but for now, here are some of Ed’s key themes and quotes:

> Philanthropy is not a complete substitute for government funding and ‘Britain’s arts ecology’ (philanthropy, government, arts orgs themselves) works well in its balance.

> There are two main problems in encouraging the wealthy to give:

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1) ‘Too many [arts orgs] think that the conversation with a donor ends when the cheque is written.’ Not only do donors not get quantitative feedback or evidence of impact, they don’t even get a polite acknowledgement: ‘Getting a thank you is a pretty astounding achievement; that’s a terrible culture we have to change.’

2) ‘We need to celebrate people who give money to arts organisations. There’s nothing wrong or grubby about that.’ If Lloyd Dorfman gives £10 million to the National Theatre, then certainly his name should be above the door.

This could also be done with public rewards: ‘I want the honours system to recognise specifically the work people have done in giving to good causes.’ There is ‘potentially a denigration of success in Britain’: whereas in America, philanthropists are lauded, we are more critical here. (These are already recommendations in the Giving White Paper.)

William Cash, Josh Spero, Ed Vaizey

> Everyone in a charitable organisation needs to think of themselves as a fundraiser: when the head of an arts organisation told Ed he’d understood that he was the chief fundraiser for his organisation, Ed said this was much too late: ‘If you can’t realise this, why the hell should anyone write you a cheque?’

> This year is, apparently, ‘the year of corporate philanthropy’, according to Jeremy Hunt, but Ed said: ‘What we’re potentially talking about is a century of philanthropy‘: arts orgs should start building up their endowments, but it won’t happen this year or next.

> Catalyst, DCMS’s new matched funding scheme, will provide a great incentive for charities to work harder for donations, he said.

In my third encounter with Ed Vaizey today, I saw him after our event on the Hacked Off panel with Hugh Grant, Zac Goldsmith, John Kampfner and Martin Moore, hosted by Alice Thompson of the Times. It was not a thoroughly enlightening occasion, with Grant playing the loveable rogue fighting for privacy, Ed and Zac mostly on the loyal defensive and John Kampfner making entirely reasonable points.

Very little of news or interest came out; there was a general agreement on the need for stricter regulation of the press, though there were no working journalists on the panel to put another view.

Ed Vaizey, on the subject of Andy Coulson, did rather unfortunately say: ‘If [David Cameron] knew then what he knows now, he would never have married him.’ He quickly corrected himself.

Zac Goldsmith, perhaps having wandered down an unintended path of arguing for greater regulation of politicians, said there would be no-one to hold him to stop him becoming the BNP’s first MP or (effectively) sodding off to the Canary Islands for four years: MPs can only be stopped at general elections. (Or by being sent to prison, as the expenses scandal proved.)

Tuesday 2.40pm
Happily, no-one has had to die as this entire blogpost, lost earlier, has been recovered by our clever techie people at Wide Area.

I have just been to a NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) event called ‘Cultural Value: Creative industries in a digital world’. The speakers were Ed Vaizey MP (don’t forget our event today), Charles Hunter of Mudlark (‘a partnership between a games company, a TV company and a web company’) and Peter Tullin of (inter alia), an online shop for the arts. The chair was Geoff Mulgan of NESTA, which funds early-stage projects and companies.

What was clever about the panel was that each member represented a different interest in digital culture: Peter was a distributor or retailer of it, Charles a creator and Ed a funder and all-round encourager.

Most interesting was Peter talking about how art and commerce did not need to be mutually exclusive fields – it was okay to make money out of arts; that you could was one way of attracting venture philanthropy or social investment.

A very Toryish question from the audience was about revenues and seemed slightly scornful of Charles because projects of his like Such Tweet Sorrow, a diverse performance of Romeo and Juliet on Twitter, had not been money-spinners. The gentleman asking seemed not to realise that not all art – indeed, not all digital art – must be for profit.

Ed brought up another couple of terms normally scorned or feared by the arts: enterprise and technology. It is entirely possible, he argued, for arts organisations to engage with technology to raise their profile and make money and make new, exciting work.

When I asked about how smaller organisations could afford this, he said the larger state-subsidised bodies which make good use of technology (the Royal Opera House or Royal Shakespeare Company, for example) should share their best practice with the industry. If this can happen, it will properly allow the cultural world to embrace the digital.

Tuesday 12.00pm
I have spent a very pleasant hour and a half in the Manchester Art Gallery. But this is not work! I hear you cry. If you think that art and heritage are not bound up with politics and finance, you need to read Spear’s a little more.

MAG has recently acquired two works by Grayson Perry, with help from the Art Fund: a vase, Jane Austen in E17, and an etching, Print for a Politician. The vase (see below) is an elegant, slim work in pale greens, with refined ladies taking tea surrounded by different textures and patterns and thumbprint-like green and purple ellipses. The ladies look slightly surprised to be in Walthamstow (London’s E17), where Perry’s studio is, but as an investigation of culture and place, it really works.

What is also successful is the surrounding display, where 15-18 year olds have picked various objects from MAG’s collection reflecting on some of the themes. The sharpest for me – and the most relevant this week – was a copy of Hello! from May last year, with David and Samantha Cameron on the front cover after the election. The theme it was representing? ‘Privilege.’

I’m staying here for the NESTA event on culture in the digital age and will blog about it afterwards. —

Tuesday 9.50am
What do I remember from last night? Good question. A 5am start and a 5pm bottle of wine have clouded my memory somewhat. Here’s what I think I learnt:

> MPs are like magnets: you have a drink with one of them and suddenly six more appear. As this is off-duty conference time, this is actually a fun occurrence and I have at least remembered some of the gossip (unrepeatable, mostly about who’s hot or not, who’s popular or not). Watch out for an MP writing in the magazine about our Save Britain’s Historic Landscape campaign sometime soon.

> MPs are obsessed with the boundary changes: a lot of the talk last night was quite detailed analysis of which wards have swapped constituencies and what that means for current colleagues (and consequent gossip). Some have had plum Tory wards moved into their constituency; some have had them moved out; some have had their constituencies entirely abolished and are reconsidering their political future. It’s shaken things up in a big way.

> Jesse Norman MP is hilarious: I went to the Lansons financial services party where Mark Hoban was supposed to speak, but – as his sub Jesse Norman said – ‘he’s been extraordinarily rendited to Brussels’, whither George Osborne is going to be spirited today, I hear. Norman is funny in a Borisish way, only he keeps it in his trousers. He accidentally (?) referred to ‘the late George Galloway’ and followed a speech by the head of the FSA with an obituary for it. That FSA speech was odd: it said that if the government had listened to the FSA, we wouldn’t have had a financial crisis. Right…

Don’t forget our Ed Vaizey philanthropy event is today at 5.30 in the Derby Suite of the Midland Hotel.

I’m now off to the Cornerhouse, Manchester’s contemporary arts centre, to see the Rashid Rana show. Or rather, I will be at noon since I’ve just seen it doesn’t open till then.

Monday 3:15pm
I have finally checked into my hotel room, having schlepped my rucksack around all morning; the hotel is just opposite the Manchester Art Gallery, which I enjoyed visiting last time I was here (not its pre-eminent pre-Raphaelites tho’, which may seem like missing the point).

I had a very interesting chat after an Adam Smith Institute event (write-up to come) with Baroness Jo Valentine, CEO of London First, which represents the City to the government – just in case they ever forget those nice people who are buying their stationery and key marginals.

We spoke about the threat of Europe to the City in terms of regulation. Her key point was that objecting to tighter regulation – such as the Tobin tax on financial transactions or the break-up of the Big Four accountancy firms – once it had been proposed was too late: ‘The trouble is, to sort that out, you need to get into Europe early, you need to be negotiating for years before the point it’s got to.

I don’t think we’ve been intervening at the right time in the right way. Historically this idea that we’re an island nation and Europe is an irritation on the side – we should change our view and say, whether we like it or not, that we’re going to engage early and talk to the relevant parties in Europe and make our case much earlier in the process. It’s nothing to do with like Europe or don’t like Europe – we’ve got to engage.’ Baroness Valentine said that, from conversations with Treasury ministers she has had, this was understood in government.

It is better, she argued, for Europe to acknowledge that it needs a global financial centre than squander its position by regulating the City out of existence: ‘Europe will lose out hugely if New York and the Far East become the global centres.’

As for the eurozone crisis, her crystal ball was cloudy: ‘I think Europe will bump along for several years and I have no idea how it’s going to play out. I’m trying to work out how it will play out for London and it could play out in London’s favour or it could play out against London. It’s very difficult to see through it at the moment.’

That conversation was after the Adam Smith Institute‘s debate on ‘Wealth Creation & the Coalition: An agenda for growth’. The panel included David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury; John Redwood MP (read John’s Spear’s lecture here); Allister Heath, editor of City AM; and Senator Freddie Cohen, assistant chief minister in Jersey.

The slight problem was that only John Redwood (bitingly and brilliantly) and Allister Heath (amusingly and to the point) discussed how to increase growth. Senator Cohen gave us a potted history of Jersey: merchants, Charles II, potatoes & cows, finance, before a minute on environmental factors (wrong audience, I’m afraid) and becoming a ‘gigabit economy’ with fast internet connections. David Gauke spent his first five minutes defending the Coalition, made a few jokes about Ed Miliband’s producers vs predators idiocy then (my notes tell me) mentioned planning reform.

John Redwood had the most arresting proposals. He wanted deregulation (a standard demand) but also thought the government should remake the banks it owns into three new, healthy clearing banks, sell them off on the stock market so that they have £10 billion capital, which they can leverage to £50 billion; then they can start lending to businesses and funding infrastructure projects.

When I asked him about our current banks not lending, he said we could either relax the capital regulations (not a good idea in a crisis), let the banks raise more capital (guaranteed by the state) or start these new banks with new capital. He went on to rail against RBS, ‘the zombie bank’, whose senior staff’s contracts and bonuses were still being honoured by the government. ‘Split it up, break it apart and sell it off!’ he cried.

Allister Heath was not all smiles, but with reason: ‘The eurozone crisis ought to be overshadowing this conference to a much greater degree than it has.’ He then talked about deregulation not just of finance but in business more broadly.

Monday 10:55am
We’ve had our first event, I’ve had my first meeting and first bump into an MP. In the Starbucks opposite the Midland Hotel, I was talking to a law firm about an article they’re writing for Spear’s when I noticed Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border and author of the fantastic Occupational Hazards, about his time as the governor of a province in Iraq soon after the invasion.

So who better to ask a very brief question about small subjects like the Taliban, Afghanistan and the resolution of our presence there? Should we be talking to the Taliban, I asked. ‘Yes, definitely.’ (So far so good.) But what about Pakistan, where a lot of the Taliban are being trained and harboured and which Hamid Karzai just blamed for the murder of Burhanuddin Rabbani?

‘We’ve been talking to Pakistan for 25 years now. We’ve got to talk to Pakistan too, but it would be very unfortunate at the end of this if Pakistan became the single gatekeeper to the region.’ Stewart’s warning – that a nuclear-armed country which has always played both sides against one another should not be put in a paramount position – is worth heeding.

Spear’s first event of the conference (our second is Ed Vaizey on philanthropy tomorrow) was Saving Arcadia, where William Cash and leading planning barrister Sasha White discussed who owns the landscape and how we should face the challenges of housing, transport and climate change. (This event is part of Spear’s Save Britain’s Historic Landscape campaign.)

Sasha White, Ian Wilson, William Cash

For a meeting at 8.30 on a Monday morning in the secure zone, the attendance was high-level – as well as William and Sasha, there was a senior MP (who asked to remain nameless) and Ian Wilson of the National Trust speaking, so we had a productive, informed discussion on how the government’s proposed National Planning Policy Framework could help or harm our local communities.

Much of the debate was around the key phrase which appears in the NPPF, ‘sustainable development‘, for whose approval there should be a presumption. Its meaning is quite simple: it involves assessing development on social, economic and environmental bases. But – the real question is, which of these takes priority? This is where the mess lies, and indeed where planning barristers do a lot of billing. Clause 130 says it should be economic, pointed out Ian Wilson, but this would be a licence to concrete over fields in practice.

Sasha White said: ‘The current presumption [in favour of approving sustainable development] is nonsense. No project I have been involved in in 20 years has said it’s unsustainable.’ There’s a fundamental contradiction between the government’s localism drive and this presumption, he added – where is the choice for local councils?

The senior MP spoke about how we needed to have a change in the planning rules as building in rural areas had  failed to adapt to modern needs – more single people, more divorced people, more people choosing to live alone. It had been a 30-40 year problem, he said. ‘Communities are in danger of ossifying’ without new houses.

William Cash was concerned about the heritage aspect: aren’t Grade One-listed buildings being built near because the economic benefit is outweighing all others? Ian Wilson agreed: ‘The way the document [the NPPF] is being read is as you feared.’

The discussion in public ‘has been verging on the scaremongering’, said Sasha White, and the MP suggested that the National Trust’s image of the countryside as Los Angeles was ‘inflammatory’ and ‘did them a great disservice’. Things were polite but there was heat behind the conversation.

The neatest phrase of the day was that Nimbys should be turned into Yimbys (Yes in my backyard) by a fuller role in consultation about proposed developments and by explaining the benefits of development. Whether they would be sustainable, however, was still much-wrangled over.

You can follow my Conservative Party Conference blog from fringe meetings, key speeches and many of Manchester’s cultural charms here.

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