Quite a couple of days up in Birmingham at Voice 09. I don't think I've ever know a conference where quite so many people wanted to talk to SSE and come and learn about us, which was great to be a part of. Massive kudos to the wonderful Liverpool SSE (Sylvia, Stephanie, Lisa, Jo, and all the students and Fellows) for manning the igloo throughout and keeping their energy up with all the enquiries and interest. And everyone seemed genuinely pleased for us given the announcment in the action plan, which was re-emphasised by Liam Byrne and Kevin Brennan in their speeches. As one person said to me (in jest), "when you look behind you, are you seeing spit on the floor?"….but, thankfully, the floor was refreshingly free of any such nastiness. Just lots of interest and lots of exciting conversations.
I thought the venue was streets ahead of last year (being finished and everything helped…), and the sounds / technical stuff all seemed perfect. The exhibition space also had more buzz as everything was a bit closer and less cavernous than before. Despite not making many sessions myself (bar the opening and closing plenaries), I heard good things about several of the breakout seminars, especially the one on scale (with the irrepressible Nigel Kershaw from Big Invest) and the one on new frontiers for business. From the plenary sessions, I enjoyed Duncan Goose of One Water taking us on his journey and taking a sideswipe at unnamed bottled water companies that (he contended) have never made a profit, so never invested any profits in projects. Although he got off fairly lightly with no environmental challenge to the bottled water paradigm, or his instant celebrity and advertising connections. As he said, useful to have; bit easier when they are your sister. But you can't argue with his impact or his ambition.
In the battle of the politicians, I think David Cameron was largely thought to be a little disappointing. His presence was arguably more significant than anything he said, given that there were no new announcements for the sector. He warmed up under questioning, though, with a neat-ish soundbite about this being the "first sector" ("I hate the phrase third sector…") and showing a decent grasp of this area's specificities and particular challenges.
Liam Byrne, meanwhile, did have new things to say, with a drive to create 25,000 jobs in social enterprises and a summit with DBERR (which will have pleased those who felt social enterprise has rather lost its connections with that department). I liked his emphasis on trust in the speech, and also heard that he'd brought local social enterprise practitioners he'd been working with in his constituency to a breakfast meeting with some more established social enterprise leaders. Which is a nice touch and shows that he also knows the sector well from the inside.
Of course, most of the talk in the bars and restaurants (there was something of a run on Ibuprofen on the Wednesday morning) was about the recession, and to what degree it was a challenge and to what degree an opportunity. The final plenary session seemed slightly torn on this, which reflected the views of the delegates, I found. On the one hand, there were those pushing for changing the whole paradigm (Andrea Westall) and aggressive growth (Nigel K), whilst others talked of the need for survival and the need to not make the same mistakes pursuing growth in an unsustainable way (Sophi Tranchell, and Matthew Thomson). That debate, I think, is set to continue, but we may hear more of survival and hatch-battening in the months ahead, rather than growth strategies.
All in all, congrats to the whole SEC team, especially events queen Mamoona Shah, and new recruit Pauline Milligan (for the Ibuprofen especially). Slightly fewer plenary speeches (not every sponsor needs a slot!) would be the only recommendation…other than that, the networking was great. And a final note of thanks to SEC and the Mid-Counties Co-operative for the bursaries which allowed some current SSE students to be able to come to the event. As you can see from the photo, they thoroughly enjoyed themselves (the SSE student, Richard Leighton, is on the left….).