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Hogging the headlines

The timing could not have been worse. Before the conference had even begun, Halifax did its best to rain on the parade by releasing research it claimed showed most building societies offer higher mortgage rates than many high-street banks.

Apoplectic press officers busied themselves hunting down reporters to register their disgust at Halifax&#39s cheek. How could they? How many of its borrowers are on the low rate it was using for comparison?

Once spleens had been vented and outraged quotes duly noted, everything settled down and the sight of red-faced society staff with malevolent glares became increasingly infrequent.

After an inauspicious start, the conference itself began brightly, with the new question-and-answer format. BSA chairman David Anderson&#39s threat of picking on random members of the audience if queries for the panel were not forthcoming worked well, provoking a lively debate on consumer power and the validity of best-buy tables.

Mail on Sunday scribe and panel member Jeff Prestridge took some flak from the audience for his outspoken column. He handled the hostility well until he was eventually ambushed into pledging a review of the best-buy tables that appear in his newspaper.

Then followed everyone&#39s favourite runner-up, Olym-pic silver medal-winning 400m runner Roger Black, to give a talk on motivation. He delivered an interesting speech on the mindset of champions and the importance of teamwork.

There was a low point when Black revealed that, had he not had the help of human hyena Kriss Akabusi throughout his career, he was unlikely to have won anything at all. I was left to reflect that if I had Akabusi near me for any period of time I would be a pretty fast runner as well.

After lunch, Mortgage Code Compliance Board chief executive Luke March and Banking Code Standards Board chairman Richard Farrant tried – in vain – to inject some life into what was a rather dry session on the nature of regulation.

The high point came when March revealed that 37,000 mortgage intermediaries have so far taken steps to pass CeMap or Maq exams before the 2002 deadline.

With the evening came the conference dinner, held in imposing stately home Bramham Park. After-dinner entertainment came courtesy of 80s TV star Bobby Davro, who did not let small details like the new millennium deter him from cracking the same old jokes to howls of approval from an incapacitated audience.

Things brightened considerably when it was discovered a makeshift casino had been constructed in the foyer. Never before had so many building society employees been witnessed tossing away money with such reckless abandon.

Disturbed, I took a closer look and was relieved to discover the currency being used was the mutual equivalent of monopoly money and not the moolah of unsuspecting members. Duly encouraged, I managed to blow the equivalent of £12,000 in approximately two-and-a-half minutes.

Glassy-eyed attendees assembled the following morning for a choice of several discussion seminars. I plumped for one on corporate governance, with a panel of Nationwide chairman Charles Nunneley, Deloitte & Touche partner Tim Davey and Cambridge University reader in economic law Dr (call me Simon) Deakin.

Quite interesting it was, too, with Nunneley expressing a quite vehement contempt for member resolutions, which had the hungover attendees nodding in unison like worshippers on a pilgrimage.

The end of the conference began much as it had started, with chairman Anderson giving a speech – in a style so laid back I thought for moment he was going to lie down midway through – which extolled the virtues of mutuality.

All that was left was for Anderson to hand over the rotating BSA chairmanship to Coventry chief executive Martin Richley to hearty applause. Everyone agreed it had been a good conference which had recovered well from the best spoiling tactics of Halifax, the UK&#39s biggest party pooper.

Perhaps more importantly, it had been conducted in the best tradition of these things – everyone had in turns been enthusiastic, annoyed, interested, inspired and inebriated. My kind of conference. Roll on next year.


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