AT a time of doom and gloom, Sheffield’s economy is set for a £2.5 million shot in the arm – over a single weekend.
For the first time, the city has been chosen as the venue for a conference by a major political party and some 2,000 delegates are expected at the event, over the weekend of March 11 to 13.
Hotels are set to be booked out, while restaurants, shops and tourist attractions are bracing themselves for extra custom.
Andrew Wiseman, chairman of the Liberal Democrats’ Conference Committee, is in charge of organising the gathering at City Hall.
He said: “The event runs through from Friday afternoon until Sunday lunchtime and the major MPs and party figures are expected to attend, along with representatives of local parties from across the UK.
“There will also be independent observers and a large number of press to report on proceedings.
“It is a prestigious event and we are delighted to be holding it in Sheffield for the first time. We are really excited to be coming here.”
He added: “The event is on a smaller scale than the autumn conference, which around 7,500 of our 70,000 party members attend, but should be a significant boost for the local economy.
“Independent research following our Spring Conference in Birmingham last year found it boosted the local economy by £2.5 million. We are expecting the same thing to happen in Sheffield.”
Mr Wiseman said although spring conferences are a relatively modern phenomenon for parties such as Labour and the Conservatives, Lib Dems have held them since the party was formed in the 1980s, giving members an extra chance to get together with MPs to discuss policy and direction.
This year, the event will be particularly significant with the Lib Dems now being part of the Government.
The conference is set to hear how party members feel about the coalition’s policies and it will be an acid test for the Lib Dem leader – Sheffield Hallam MP and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Last year’s Autumn Lib Dem conference in Liverpool was too early for many of the coalition’s policies to become clear.
Away from the political arena, Sheffield’s hospitality industry will be the main beneficiary.
Mr Wiseman said: “Our headquarters hotel will be the Mercure St Paul’s and we are also recommending the Leopold and Jury’s Inn.
Lots of other hotels around the city should be fully booked, too. It’ll also be a boom for restaurants, cultural attractions and shops, given the number of people we are expecting - who will be looking for entertainment when away from the debates in City Hall.
“It’ll be of great benefit for Sheffield’s economy as a whole.”
His views are echoed by those of the city’s business community.
Yuri Matischen, president of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said: “The Lib Dem conference will bring significant benefits to the region’s business community.
“Thousands of additional people will be coming to the city, spending money in shops, cafes and hotels. As a city we need to massively improve business and leisure tourism because we are well behind other key cities around the country.
“It is therefore Sheffield’s intention to attract major national and international events, from sporting world championships to the global manufacturing festival and the spring conference is just another example.
“This will push Sheffield forward as a key destination in the UK and drive on the city’s plans for economic growth.”
Dominic Stokes, general manager of Sheffield International Venues Events, said the conference will be “probably the most significant business event ever held at City Hall”.
“We have hosted conferences of up to 2,000 people before but this will give us a showing on a national and, possibly, international scale. If we become established as a venue for political conferences, the benefits to us in terms of the business market will be unbelievable,” he said.
The conference also means extra duties for South Yorkshire Police, which is organising security and will have to ensure Mr Clegg and other Government ministers from the Lib Dems stay safe.
Potential threats range from terrorism to protests from groups opposed to Government cutbacks.
Senior officers are putting the finishing touches to their policing plan, knowing that demonstrators are likely to descend on the city.
Superintendent Martin Scothern, who is co-ordinating security for the conference, said the force had already been officially notified of some protest groups due to stage demonstrations when Lib Dem delegates attend, but he expected some other groups to turn up unannounced.
He said the force is happy for peaceful protesters to have their voices heard.
Bosses have granted him permission to have all the resources he needs for the policing operation to keep party delegates, police officers and members of the public safe.
Supt Scothern said: “Some groups have told us of their plans to protest and we would encourage others to do that too but we accept that some won’t.
“We have a duty to allow people to exercise their right to protest and we take that very seriously, however we will balance that against the rights of everyone else in the city.
“Although we will be supportive of peaceful protests they must not be to the detriment of others in the area at the same time. Safety is of paramount importance to us.
“There will be a considerable number of officers on duty for the duration of the conference and we are looking at bringing in extra staff from neighbouring forces.”
Sheffield Council leader Coun Paul Scriven said: “The fact that the Liberal Democrats are holding such a high profile conference in Sheffield is a huge vote of confidence in our city.
“I’m delighted that the event will provide a £2.5m boost to our local economy. But it’s also a great opportunity for us to showcase our fantastic city in the media spotlight.
“I believe this event will prove that Sheffield can do these kind of events just as well as anywhere else, if not even better.
“I’m hopeful that our conference can play a key part in attracting even more major conferences in the future, which means extra jobs and investment for Sheffield.
“Regardless of your political colour, I’m sure this is something every Sheffielder will welcome.”
Mr Clegg said: “The Liberal Democrat conference will put Sheffield at the centre of the political debate in this country and give the city a significant economic boost.
“When we arranged this spring conference, more than two years ago, we had no idea we would be gathering as a party in power.
“Britain is faced with tough challenges and the Government with big decisions and I can’t think of anywhere better to discuss them.”
THE conference is set to be the biggest political gathering in the city since Labour’s ill-fated 1992 pre-election rally at Sheffield Arena.
An estimated 10,000 people attended that event, a week ahead of the General Election, where then party leader Neil Kinnock was flown in by helicopter.
Inspired by American presidential campaign conventions, there were sound and light, celebrity endorsements played on a giant video screen, before members of the shadow cabinet were presented triumphantly to the crowd, with Kinnock introduced as ‘the next Prime Minister’.
The event culminated in an emotional Kinnock taking the podium and shouting “We’re alright!” which was seen as a major political own goal.
But Labour, who had led in the polls, were defeated by John Major’s Conservatives, who remained in Government until 1997, when, under Tony Blair, Labour finally swept to power after 18 years in opposition.
Lib Dems say Mr Clegg will be more grounded in his approach at the Lib Dem event – as he seeks to turn around a decline in Lib Dem support since the party entered into the coalition with the Conservatives last summer.
Sheffield’s last large-scale political event was in 2005, when justice and home affairs ministers of eight of the world’s leading nations came to Sheffield to discuss the “war on terror”, international crime and helping Africa tackle corruption.It involved more than 500 people, including 200 delegates and officials.