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The Emperor’s New Clothes

The Emperor’s New Clothes

🕔15.Oct 2012

Do children still learn fairy tales when they start school? One of my favourites was The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, which involved the tricking of a vain and stupid ruler in a far-away kingdom.

Two weavers promised the Emperor a new suit made from the finest materials which would only by visible to the intelligentsia. As far as the ordinary masses were concerned, they simply wouldn’t be able to see the magnificent and very expensive creation at all.

All went well for a while, with the great gathering of sycophants around the ruler only too happy to congratulate him on his dress sense and on making such a wise choice. It was only when a little boy in the crowd shouted ‘he’s got no clothes on’ that the illusion collapsed, leaving the Emperor red-faced and rather out in the cold.

Has Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City Council, become the little boy that shouted the truth?

Here is the highly relevant question he raised last week: “Is there any lasting economic value attached to staging party conferences at the ICC?

“We get publicity from a party conference, yes. But is there any long lasting economic benefit?”

I see an H E Bateman cartoon featuring council officers, hair standing on end, eyes bulging, and arms flailing, unable quite to believe what they have just heard.

The cleverer bean counters, however, surely won’t be surprised that Albert is demanding answers. For a man with a fine scientific brain, which the new council leader has in abundance, would be unlikely to take for granted that it is a “good thing for Birmingham” to pay the Conservative Party about £1.5 million in order that the Government might decamp to this city for four days (or to the Labour Party, should they ever be persuaded to come here).

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ran Birmingham from 2004 until May this year put a great deal of money and effort into attracting the party conferences. The theory was that these events would present Birmingham to a global audience as a major conference city, while the thousands of delegates attending the events would pour millions of pounds into the city’s bars, restaurants and hotels.

Indeed, this year’s Conservative conference was said by the council to have attracted 13,500 delegates and generated £16.5 million in economic benefit for Birmingham. Similarly mind-boggling figures are regularly trotted out for the city’s Christmas German Market, which is said to attract more than three million visitors and generate about £90 million in spending power.

It’s a win-win situation, as former council leader Mike Whitby regularly claimed. But is it really?

For a start, where do they get these figures from? The answer is from computer programmes set up to calculate how much money an average person spends when visiting Birmingham, and then no doubt adding a bit on for Tory largesse.

There was always something a bit Emperor’s Clothes about the absolute certainty that boosting the “prestige” of Birmingham by attracting the biggest names in politics, sport, the arts, restaurants, you name it, would automatically be good news for the city’s profile….and, crucially, attract new investment, ultimately creating jobs and wealth.

The further you gaze out from the very confined city centre to the suburbs of soaring unemployment and poor skills, the harder it is to prove or to justify the prestige argument. If the ICC and NEC do a good job in marketing Birmingham internationally, the impact is yet to trickle down much.

As far as the economic benefit from the Tory conference is concerned, the picture is far from clear. Is the £16.5 million a net or gross figure? The bars, restaurants and hotels of Brindleyplace are incredibly busy at the best of times, so how much additional income is really generated? And how many people who would have visited the Broad Street area were put off and stayed at home or went elsewhere because of the security attached to the conference?

If the Conservatives had not been in Birmingham at the beginning of October, the ICC would certainly have staged a different conference which would also have delivered spending power while keeping the city’s hotels and eating places busy and happy.

Sir Albert’s central question, how long lasting is the economic benefit from party conferences, must be easier to answer. About a week, would be a fair guess, before the collective national memory of the Conservatives at Birmingham fades from memory.

He proposes aligning conferences more closely to the economic growth sectors that the council is trying to promote, which rather rules out politics for the foreseeable future.

The premise is that staging a convention on, say, computer gaming technology or advancement in life sciences, would do far more to promote Birmingham as a place to do business than any number of appearances by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. And because such conferences can be attracted without bunging £1.5 million to the organisers, Birmingham could stage more of them.

Sir Albert is asking for solid evidence proving the case for ‘buying’ party conferences. My guess is that council officers will see the way the wind is blowing and bid farewell to the Emperor and his invisible clothes.

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