The itinerary said be at the event for 6pm. I arrived early, as I didn’t want it to look like I’d just waltzed in straight off the London train. I’d done my homework – the RICS Residential Policy paper (released last week) sat freshly marked up in my bag. I had my points to get across, and I wasn’t afraid to use them. This is the new era of open debate amongst the Labour Party after all. I didn’t think they’d mind some straight talking from an outsider.
Roger and Trevor, the RICS representatives, were there to greet me, and very amiable they were too. RICS were sponsoring the event, and they were keen to get it right. They’d rolled out their paper at the Liberal Democrats conference, and it would be re-run at the Conservative party next week. They were looking to stimulate a debate, and they had a good running order: Angela Eagle MP, Shadow First Secretary of State; Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Helen Hayes MP, vice chair of the all party parliamentary group for housing and planning, Michael Newey of RICS, and myself. I was effectively first up, and I was to give an industry perspective on the Paper, and my thoughts more generally on ways to speed up the delivery of, and supply of, housing. After the politicians had had their say, we were to embark on a question and answer session with the audience.
At 5.50pm the buffet trolleys were wheeled in, and the RICS team went into hospitality mode. Tracey took care of the carrots and cucumber sticks, whilst Alan managed the hoards of ham and cheese sandwiches. Both were casting envious eyes at Marjorie, who looked like she’d secured sponsorship from Hardys, judging by the quantity of red and white wine on offer. One thing was for sure, no one was going to go home thirsty.
The first sign that things were not going entirely to plan was when one of the organisers slipped into the room and passed a note to Roger. “A touch of the tummy wobbles. Angela can’t make it, but Baroness Hayter has agreed to stand in”. “Not to worry”, said Trevor. Everyone agreed that in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech, things were bound to be a bit busy at the top table of the Labour Party.
Helen arrived right on time, and it was good to see her as a Member of Parliament (having previously been a director at Urban Practioners before it was incorporated into Allies & Morrison). Baroness Hayter duly arrived, and the panel was beginning to take shape.
Then Roger delivered the second bit of bad news: “It’s Roberta. Unfortunately she’s had to pull out as well”. Whilst this was clearly disappointing, I was more preoccupied by what appeared to be a more fundamental issue: where was everybody? One chap had taken a pew on the farthest seat from the back, and was valiantly attempting to eat his body weight in Mini Cheddars and sun-dried tomatoes. There was a young group of people quaffing the white wine that I had taken to be delegates, but weren’t they RICS badges pinned to their lapels?
By 6.15pm, it was quite obvious that the event was not going to constitute a sell out. We were passing the time of day trying to out-do each other with tales of right to buy, construction skills shortages and the cost of living in London, but the fact remained that the panel was beating the audience by a ratio of 2:1. By 6.30pm Trevor was entertaining us with stories of infamous cross-country rail excursions. By 6.45pm he was explaining the trans-Atlantic challenges associated with being a former chair of the RICS. And who can disagree that spending 72 hours on a flight to Singapore, only to have to be re-routed to India for a meeting with the ruling party only to find that they are on holiday is anything other than a bind?
It was left to Roger to put us out of our misery: “I’m terribly sorry, everyone, but it looks as though the masses have decided to go home after Jeremy’s speech. I don’t think there’s much point keeping you any longer”.
And that was pretty much that. Except I overhead Alan speaking to the white wine brigade: “Can you believe the bloody Labour Party forgot to publicise it! I’d have got 5,000 fliers made up and handed around Brighton if they’d owned up earlier. A front line issue, and they forget to tell their members that we’re having a debate on housing!”
The buffet trolleys were wheeled back in, and ‘man on back row’ made his excuses as he belched his way through the fire exit, whilst the Hardys was put firmly back on ice. And then the Phoenix rose from the flames – Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking himself – popped his head round the door to see if the debate was still going: “terribly sorry, sir, but the event has been cancelled”, said Trevor, as Billy was ushered back into the foyer. Never mind.
Some of the names have been changed, but Billy most definitely played himself.