Two days at the Tory conference



An early start today to get
up to Manchester for mid-morning. Mercifully the tube is a bit cooler than of
late and running smoothly. First time on a Pendolino – it’s fast and furious
(leaning into the corners like a motorbike). I feel a bit sick.


I wander up to the main
conference centre to soak up the atmosphere – it is strangely muted. I was expecting more of a protest
outside but it’s calm. The main conference centre’s a large space and feels a bit
like a hangar. I head off to check out a fringe event but the room is so hot I
dip out and meet up with the NCVO staff and the other NCVO bursary winners.


Straight off to The Palace Hotel for a fringe event on the
National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), organised by the planners body the Royal Town Planning Institute.
Chatting to two people sitting next to me, who agree the NPPF is ill-thought
through – turns out they’re both developers. Bob Neill the planning minister is
resilient on the NPPF, but accepts the need for a transition period to the new
system. Neill claims most criticism of the NPPF is “well wide of the


Off again for the NCVO
roundtable with Nick Hurd and NCVO chair Martyn Lewis. The minister is friendly
and agrees charities should be campaigning, give governments a hard time and
irritate them – this is all part of a democracy. I suggest Francis Maude
doesn’t agree, judging by his language in the Inpendent on Sunday. Bigger
charities like Cancer Research UK and Keep Britain Tidy also attend and question the
minister. It’s good natured but gets quite lively.


NFU event ostensibly about
sustainable farming. It has no surprises, though I have an entertaining
conversation with a couple of farmers who are at the core of Eric Pickles’
local party in Basildon. Jim Paice suggests badgers and bats have far too much
protection and a long-term wildlife management strategy is needed to get away
from the species by species approach. There is a small anti-badger cull



Miss out on the 8am fringe
events but spot that Boris Johnson is talking in the main arena at 10am. How could I miss
that? The arena is pretty full (though we are encouraged to fill up the seats
at the front for the cameras –  I demur). Jeremy Paxman slips in at the last
minute and sits next to me. Boris is typical – buffooning, ebullient,
declamatory, extolling his version of one nation Toryism (but the nation is
London, not the UK). He verges on demagoguery and plays the audience
effortlessly, even giving a roll call to places around the country that have
provided things for the Olympics (he calls for a snap Olympics – to get it
over and done with), including rhubarb used to stain some decking. He slightly
loses his thread as he doesn’t know where the rhubarb came from (the rhubarb
triangle presumably) or who the rhubarb rubbers are. Paxman snorts quietly – he
may be laughing or snorting derisively – it’s hard to tell. I suggest to him
afterwards the whole speech was a lot of rhubarb and he chuckles.


Have a nice catch up with
colleagues from Woodland Trust  –
they are experts in schmoozing MPs; I have public affairs envy.


The next fringe event is in
Manchester Town Hall. This event is a water All Party Parliamentary Group event on the water white
paper. The main point, though, is to catch Richard Benyon MP afterwards so I can ask
him some grassland questions.

Unexpectedly it turns out to
be an excellent fringe event. I asked my first conference question about water
companies paying farmers to manage their land more extensively, and how this
squared with sustainable intensification (ie it doesn’t). All the water company
chief execs agreed payment for catchment management should be universal, upland
and lowland. Benyon agreed but didn’t answer the sustainable intensification

I wandered back to the main
conference area with Benyon but he had to dash off for another meeting
so we then suggested to meet later to talk through my questions.


I bump into my old mate Ruth
Davis from Greenpeace. We meet Benyon at 3.45pm as agreed and I put my points
to him. He’s receptive and asks me to send more detail by email. Ruth also gets
her point across about Spanish crime families and illegal fishing. Benyon dashes off and Ruth is off to
meet Greg Barker, the climate change minister. I say hello to him and remind him of
his meeting with my chief exec next week about carbon storage in meadow soils.


The last fringe event for me is
the Daily Telegraph/National Trust event on the NPPF. This could be the high point of the
conference. Fiona Reynolds (NT) and Shaun Spiers (Campaign to Protect Rural England) vs Oliver Letwin and
Charles Moore. Turns out Moore and Letwin were at Trinity Cambridge together and are
a couple of heavyweight intellects. Geoffrey Lean is an allegedly neutral
chair. Just as the debate gets going I have to leave to get my train.

Overall I found the whole
experience very rewarding. The biggest benefit is having the opportunity to
talk to ministers without the intervention of civil servants – that was
extremely valuable. Also, fringe events can encourage vibrant and open debate
within a small group with key players and experts and even with ministers who
are listening.

Miles King, director of conservation, The Grasslands Trust