Why your local Chamber of Commerce is more important than ever

Phil Bridgeman
Head of Membership | Business West
6th May 2020

The first chamber of commerce was founded in 1599 in Marseille, France as the "Chambre de Commerce”. They met in a room, a chambre, hence chamber, to talk about shared concerns in their businesses and the world of commerce in which they inhabited.

They first made it to our shores 160 years ago and despite the fact a lot has changed since then, Chambers still do much the same thing. Over the past 160 years, Chambers have helped businesses through the industrial revolution, 2 world wars and countless economic shocks and recessions, and they are playing a vital role helping businesses through the coronavirus pandemic too.

Through their lobbying and campaigning activities, advice and support, networking and more Chambers really do come into their own in the toughest of times, as the last couple have months have duly demonstrated.

Lobbying government

The government’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic has been unprecedented. In the first few weeks of the lockdown government announced a furlough scheme, local authority administered small business grants and the CBILS loan scheme.

Whilst welcomed by businesses and the Chamber community, the devil proved to be in detail of some of these schemes, with businesses seemingly overlooked or slipping through the net as a result of their technical requirements.

The Chambers network has led the charge in securing changes to government support packages for the self-employed, highlighted the shortcomings of CBILS loan scheme (which led to the announcement of the bounce back loan scheme) and more.

Here in the West, we were able to convince government to open up the small business grants scheme to more and more businesses as a result of engagement with a BEIS minister and persuaded local authorities to publish details of how much coronavirus cash had made it into the pockets of local businesses.

With a question mark remaining over the phase out of the furlough scheme in June – rest assured we are working hard at a national level to get clarity on this issue and find a positive solution for our member community.

Expert advice and support

Helping businesses sleep more soundly at night is one of the core purposes of a Chamber. Whether you are starting up or scaling up, innovating and exporting or simply trying to keep the lights on, Chambers such as Business West have a crack team of expert advisors on hand to help your business navigate through the best and worst of times.

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, Business West put in place a cross organisational team to enable us to be able to speedily support members during this period of unprecedented uncertainty and concern.

Among the first actions was to establish an information and guidance platform here on our website as a major portal for organisations across the area we serve.

As it stands, more than 40,000 businesses have visited our Trading Through Coronavirus hub for expert advice, information and guidance and we have helped countless more on a one to one basis (whilst observing social distancing rules of course).

Whilst we cannot proport to have quelled all the anxiety and uncertainty we are currently facing, Business West can be proud of its work and that it has been able to provide at least a crumb of comfort to businesses, which has gone some way to allaying fears of our member communities.

Being part of a support network

Chambers are a tight knit community. A key role of Chambers is to bring businesses together – to learn from and support one another, to exchange tips and ideas and of course to do business.

In normal times, our Chamber networking breakfasts are central to this. Today, we continue to serve this purpose even as social distancing continues.

We are holding webinars and making introductions member to member to enable businesses support one another and continue to do business where possible - a function which is vital to the region’s economic recovery from the coronavirus.

Not only are we bringing networks of businesses together, our Initiative teams in the West of England and Swindon & Wiltshire are busy establishing a network of business, community and political leaders to try find a pathway out of this crisis.

Voice of business and representation

Business West works with 22,000 businesses throughout South West England, meaning that our detailed insight and intelligence are unrivalled.

Local and national decision makers and local and national media know only Chambers of Commerce truly understand how local businesses are feeling right now.

That’s why we are credited with conducting one of the UK’s largest surveys of business sentiment regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

And for this reason we are seen as a trusted interlocuter between the public and private sector, as demonstrated by British Chambers of Commerce President, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith leading the charge on the UK’s lockdown exit strategy.

These a just a handful of ways Chambers are playing a key role helping businesses through this difficult time, being part of one is more important than ever.

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