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The incidental delegate

When the nice folk at New Start asked me if I’d like to attend the CLES summit I jumped at the chance to escape humdrum Bristol for a few days and toodle up to the much-more-dynamic Manchester.

I’ll confess I’ve been out of the conference habit for a while now, but I was looking forward to some fresh ideas, in-depth challenging conversation, news from around the world of regeneration, and creative solutions to the current pressures imposed on the sector – and the CLES summit had all these by the bucket load.  What I’d forgotten about conferencing is all that other stuff that quietly siphons off your attention.

On the first day I lost count of the number of speakers who asked the audience if they’d read the Open Public Services white paper which had been published the day before. Here it was, 10am and they were claiming they’d already read it.  Pffft I don’t believe them.

In fact, buried as it was in the stinking effluence of the News International hacking scandal, the only thing worth knowing about the white paper is that the government must regard it as bad news.

Of course I haven’t read it I wanted to shout, I’ve been too busy trying to work out if Rebekah Brooks perms her hair, because with a bit of teasing I reckon I could make mine look like that.  The only other reading I’d done by that time of the morning was my room service menu and that other vital document, the delegate list. Come on own up, scanning the names for potential pub partners for later is always the first priority of any conference delegate.

There are many other challenges facing delegates, one of which is not nodding off during plenary sessions.  I have to say that most of the speakers were dynamic, fascinating and bursting with energy, offering no opportunity at all for 40 winks, but the odd one was slipped in to test listening endurance levels. However I’d come prepared with a fine antidote in the form of a stiff carbonara stain on the sleeve of my velvet jacket which took some intensive picking off and saw me through without the merest hint of an unexpected head nod (which, incidentally, can always be cunningly disguised as an enthusiastic show of agreement if you catch it early enough, nod some more and adopt a thoughtful expression).

Other trials include trying desperately not to choke on a Foxes glacier mint during a presentation and resisting the urge to scratch your head during question time in case you get a microphone shoved in your face when you have less to say than a News of the World journalist (mainly due to paying undue attention to old carbonara).

Break times bring their own challenges, particularly when you’re trying to find a proper working-class tea bag in amongst the chichi sachets of fair-trade fruit flavoured floor sweepings.  Once that hurdle is crossed you have to work out how to get hot water on it. Dispenser mechanisms on flasks are like snowflakes, no two are the same and they’re designed to make you feel incompetent and clumsy and put you at risk of a scalding at every opportunity.  Add to this samosas that look like they’re filled with compost and taste like horror and it’s a relief remove yourself from danger and get along to an interactive workshop.

Despite all of the above, I really enjoyed the CLES summit and not just because I got a free linen shopping bag ethically made in some far off place along with some recycled pens that allow you to write nearly 100 words before they expire.  The chance to be enthused, energised and educated by CLES chief exec Neil McInroy again was alone worth the journey.  If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, ignore your pasta stains for a while and sit back and be inspired.

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