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The truth about councils at Mipim

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A despatch from the international property conference that is attracting a growing number of councils 

In recent years increasing numbers of councils have been heading to Mipim, the conference in Cannes that bills itself as the “world’s leading property market” and this year attracted more than 25,000 developers, investors and property professionals as well as a smattering of politicians from over 100 countries.

Attendance at the annual event is often controversial back home, with opposition councillors and local newspapers keen to portray it as little more than a big jolly at the taxpayer’s expense. Its location on the French Riviera, in a beachfront conference venue that in a couple of months’ time will play host to the likes of George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson when the Cannes film festival is in full swing, does not discourage that notion. Nor does the harbour full of yachts on which some of the major players hold their meetings. Certainly, when LGC was there this week the sun shone and the booze flowed freely for those who chose to indulge.

However, though the council chiefs and senior officers and politicians in attendance will undoubtedly down a drink or two, for them Mipim means a gruelling schedule of back to back speaking engagements and meetings with potential investors and developers, usually followed by a dinner with some of said investors. They are essentially here to do one thing and one thing only: sell their place.

Of course, there will be some who will never be comfortable with this apparent cosiness between big finance and local government but the fact is the public purse alone cannot fund major regeneration schemes so councils have to play the game. As one senior officer told me they had shared that scepticism before their first trip to Mipim last year, but were quickly persuaded of the value of attending the event for their place. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t here,” they said. The Liverpool delegation countered some of the cynicism back home by taking a reporter from their local paper along with them.

A stroll around the exhibitors’ hall makes for quite a surreal experience as the world’s nations, cities and regions quite literally set out their stall so that London is next door to Istanbul and the Leeds City Region but a stone’s throw from Stockholm. This brings home the international competition our places face in attracting the inward investment required to get major housing and regeneration projects off the ground, as well as importance of brand and having a coherent story to tell the money men (and they are almost all men).

Consequently, local rivalries have been set aside when places, invariably groups of councils, decide how to present themselves at the event. The West of England CA, for example, was based under the banner of Bristol & Bath and while Durham CC and Gateshead Council were also in attendance, the stand representing the north east contingent was simply called Newcastle.

How to build mutually beneficial relationships with developers

This subject will be discussed at LGC’s new Future Places event in Birmingham on 22-23 May. For full details see here.

UK places dominate the beachfront promenade – so much so it has become known as Rue d’Anglais – with the UK government, the Midlands, London, Manchester and Newcastle all clustered together. The word stand doesn’t do justice to the typical exhibitor presence at Mipim. All have space for meetings, most offer some form of free refreshment and many have a small platform or similar to host talks and panel discussions. The cost of such facilities can run into the hundreds of thousands, but for local government the majority of the costs are covered by the private sector partners that form part of their delegations. And while the cost may sound a lot, the councils out here are seeking investment in the order of hundreds of millions, if not billions. They need to look like they mean business.

Most delegations co-ordinated by local government have chartered their own flights to and from the four-day event. LGC was told the size of the delegations, including numerous business people whose firms are footing most of the bill for the local government presence, made this the most cost effective way to travel. They are, one senior politician said, keen to trade on the legitimacy that being part of such a delegation lends them in their own deal making, which in turn gives confidence to investors.

Doing deals is the reason given for coming to Mipim, although most will admit few deals are actually done in France. Everyone LGC spoke to was clear the value in coming to the event was the number and quality of new contacts that could be made, or getting different parties needed to get a development off the ground round the table.

One council claimed they were able to cram the equivalent of three months of meetings into three days, and crucially ‘triangulate’ by bringing different people together who may usually prove difficult to get in the same room. The Homes England team at Mipim apparently completed 108 speaking engagements over the three days.

The spectre of Brexit inevitably hung over discussions, with this week’s Westminster drama hardly providing the stable backdrop investors crave. Nevertheless, the consensus was that when it comes to housebuilding in particular there is still an appetite to invest in the UK. The British government had a high profile presence, including prominent adverts in the event’s daily newspaper. And while MPs indulged in a display of grandstanding and brinkmanship back home the leaders of most of the Core Cities were at Mipim, making the case that Britain is still open for business and that its fundamentals are still strong. Right now, it’s looking like a safe bet which group of politicians will have the most to show from the past week.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor


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