Liberal Democrats from all over Britain converge on City Hall this week for what is set to be an eventful spring conference
TWO thousand delegates, thousands of protesters and a high metal fence surrounding the City Hall. The Liberal Democrats Spring Conference in leader Nick Clegg’s own backyard is certain to be a lively affair. Richard Blackledge, Richard Marsden and Mike Russell take an in-depth look at the three-day event.
THE Liberal Democrat conference is set to boost Sheffield’s economy by £2.5 million - and the benefit to the city is expected to be considerable as delegates check into hotels, visit restaurants and take in local attractions..
Yuri Matischen, president of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, said the three-day event will bring a “lift to the economy on a very large scale”.
“It puts Sheffield on the map - it’ll be viewed as a place that major organisations consider a destination capable of hosting major events,” Mr Matischen said.
“It will be a range of companies that will benefit - people will be coming to the area to spend money.
“Obviously, it will be the hotel industry, retail and restaurants, but also a lot of logistics organisations and even security.”
Mr Matischen, who is also managing director of Chapeltown-based leisure consultancy MLS, added: “It will raise the profile of our city in a very positive manner in addition to the economic impact.
“It will bring a massive amount of bed nights to the city, and in terms of placement and marketing it will be relatively high-profile.
“It’s great that it’s coming, it’s a major event and has a huge business benefit to the city. I hope it all goes very well.”
Steven Vandevelde, general manager of the Holiday Inn Victoria in Sheffield, said all of the hotel’s 107 bedrooms are fully-booked for Saturday.
“As far as I know most other hotels in Sheffield are - it’s estimated that the conference will bring 3,500 bed nights to Sheffield,” Mr Vandevelde said.
“I would have been happier if our new hotel was open next door. That has 161 additional bedrooms, and it’s possible we would have sold those as well.”
The hotelier said the conference is a “great thing” and also commented on the choice of venue.
“The City Hall is a nice venue to portray Sheffield. It gives the right image of the place and how much Sheffield has moved on.
“It’s great being judged as able to put on large events.”
Sheffield Council leader Coun Paul Scriven said: “The conference is going to have an economic benefit for the city.
“In that weekend alone, local businesses will receive to the tune of £2.5 million, which will help retain jobs in the current economic climate and there could be a long-term additional benefit to the city in terms of attracting tourism and promoting Sheffield.”
PROTESTS, including direct action are planned on the streets outside – and the atmosphere could get equally fiery inside the City Hall as Lib Dems gather for their annual Spring Conference.
Andrew Wiseman, the man in charge of organising this week’s event, says “lively debate” is expected as the party’s rank and file grill senior members including leader Nick Clegg.
Formal conference debates will take place over three days, on Friday afternoon, all day on Saturday, then Sunday morning.
The conference is only the second to be held since the Lib Dems went into coalition with the Conservatives – and the first since painful measures were passed by the fledgling Government last autumn.
These include the huge budget cuts, plus the tuition fees rise – agreed by MPs despite a Lib Dem pledge against fees.
Both issues are known to have upset rank-and-file party members, although leader and Sheffield Hallam MP Mr Clegg said plenty of Lib Dem ideas have been passed, including raising the earnings threshold at which people pay income tax.
Mr Wiseman, chairman of the Lib Dems’ Federal Conference Committee, said: “A whole range of issues will be discussed, from the NHS to future party policies and direction.
“There will also be two question and answer sessions, one with Nick Clegg and another with people from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, including Secretary of State for Business Vince Cable.
“And a session will be held to discuss emergency motions from party members.”
Asked about the mood of the party ahead of the conference, Mr Wiseman said: “There is a mood of real interest and excitement.
“In terms of members’ views about the coalition, some people are in favour of some things the Government has done, others are against.
“We are a mature party and conferences like this are an opportunity where ordinary members get the chance to have their say and ask questions.”
He added that what makes the Lib Dems’ Spring Conference different from Labour’s and the Tories’ is that policy is made at the event.
“It won’t necessary become Coalition policy but we are a distinct party and we are looking to develop our own ideas,” Mr Wiseman said.
He told The Star that as well as the debates within City Hall, there will be hundreds of other ‘fringe’ debates in Sheffield – starting from Thursday, when most delegates arrive, and continuing over the weekend.
“There will be anything from small events with audiences of 20 to 30, to those with up to 400 members present.
“Main venues for those events will be the Mercure St Paul’s Hotel, the Jurys Inn, and the Leopold Hotel – plus other hotels around the city,” Mr Wiseman said.
Preparations for the conference began six months ago but the full details, such as order of debates, were not finalised until around six weeks ago.
Subjects and motions for debate have been selected after consultation with party members.
Work to set up the stage and exhibitions in City Hall will begin on Wednesday.
Mr Wiseman said: “It’s a good venue for us because, unlike at some other places, there is a ready-made stage and seating.
“Outside the main hall, there will be space created for media and an exhibition. Those participating in the exhibition will be organisations like the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, various pressure groups and other organisations.
“There are also various local government groups, companies and others, such as the Birmingham Convention, which markets Birmingham, because we are going there in September.”
STUDENT leaders at The University of Sheffield are planning to protest when the Lib Dem conference arrives in the city on Friday - but they say their demonstrations will be peaceful.
And campaigners will be kept well away from the City Hall - a security fence will be installed around the perimeter to keep protesters away from the venue.
The demo will be the latest in a series by students. The university student union organised a series of marches before Christmas in the run-up to the Commons vote on increasing tuition fees.
Many students also took part in a separate protest which saw hundreds of young people descend on Nick Clegg’s Hallam constituency offices at Nether Green.
The union aims to make its voice heard on the issue of higher fees for university education at two ‘Welcome to Sheffield’ events to be held in the city centre near Sheffield City Hall on Friday and Saturday.
Union officers have also requested meetings with all Lib Dem MPs during their visit to discuss the party’s U-turn on higher education which led to riots on the streets of London last autumn.
Students who study at Sheffield University but who live in constituencies all over the country with a Liberal Democrat MP have also requested a meeting when their MPs are in the city.
Student union president Josh Forstenzer said: “Following the decision to increase tuition fees at the end of last year, we are now deeply concerned about the upcoming Higher Education White Paper, which will outline how much universities will be allowed to charge as well as what support packages will be offered to students from low income families.
“Student union officers will be writing to all conference delegates asking them to keep their promises this time, and to put pressure on Liberal Democrat leaders to ensure the White Paper is as fair as it can possibly be.”
Conference chief Andrew Wiseman said he hopes the conference will pass off peacefully, although he accepts protests outside as inevitable.
Sheffield Anti Cuts Alliance, a group of trade unionists and others opposed to the scale of the Government’s reductions in public spending, has already said it is planning ‘direct action’ including an attempt to blockade City Hall.Mr Wiseman said he has not had any involvement in the policing and security plans for the event.
But he said: “We welcome people who want to discuss their views with party members and who want to come to Sheffield to participate in lawful and peaceful protest.
“However, we would be concerned if protesters were to break the law, which would include any attempts to break into the conference venue.
“It is a good thing that people are able to protest in this country and make their views known – but this event is meant to be for our own members to discuss the policies of our party and give their opinions.”
What you say
Lottie Rugg-Easie, aged 19, English and theatre student at Sheffield University, of Broomhill, said: “It will be beneficial in that it will give Sheffield more publicity.
“But I think it will allow people to voice their discontent with what the Liberal Democrats have done, in Sheffield in particular. I’m disappointed. I voted Liberal Democrat at the last election but I’m voting Labour next time.”
John Armstrong, 54, civil servant, from North Anston, said: “I suppose if your leader is an MP for Sheffield then you’re well-placed to put your case forward to get one of these conferences. I reckon it’s got to be good for tourism and the hotel trade. If it’s good for tourism and gets a bit of publicity then it doesn’t harm things.
“The Liberals have obviously lost popularity with students and suchlike, because of broken promises. They’re probably bringing it here as they’re a bit worried about losing their popularity within Sheffield.”
Muriel Turner, 81, from Crosspool, said: “I don’t think it’ll get a lot of support, but I suppose it will have a benefit. It will perhaps bring people into the city and bring money in.
“If the police bill is £2 million, then it shows the event won’t gain anything in the long run. It does seem a lot of money.”
Oliver Brown, 27, computer programmer, from Hillsborough, said: “I think there’s a chance there might be protests and various things about the Coalition. It will probably be a good thing on the whole and bring people to the city but a lot of people are unhappy with the Lib Dems.
“I can’t imagine Nick Clegg increasing his popularity with one conference. Sheffield’s always been a Labour seat, really, apart from Hallam.”