Across Britain, Chambers of Commerce provide a valuable support services to businesses, from networking and advice to practical assistance with complicated issues, and providing a platform from which the voice of business is heard in the halls of power. Justin Richardson is CEO of Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce and spoke to All Things Business about the role of the organisation in providing security and peace of mind to local firms.
What does the current membership of Bedfordshire Chamber look like?
We provide membership and support for more than 700 organisations, employing around 60,000 people. That ranges from small and micro-businesses right up to some of the area’s large employers such as Vauxhall and CentreParks.
What services does the Chamber provide to businesses on a daily basis?
Firstly, we provide a platform through which members can meet and collaborate and build long-term relationships. That could be through events and networking meetings, although that’s not the case at the current time, or it could be through direct referrals. What that means is a member comes to us with a specific need or query and we put them in touch with another member who can help. We also provide signposting to funding that is available and help those eligible to take the correct steps to access it.
Another important role is to give a voice to local businesses, to make sure their message reaches the decision makers at the heart of Westminster.
You also provide expert support for international trade, which is going to become even more important over the coming months?
That’s correct, we can take care of documentation for those who trade overseas, currently with countries outside of the EU, and ensure that their goods get through customs, while at the same time making sure that they get paid promptly. For smaller businesses, international trade can be a time-consuming and complicated process and our aim is to take on that burden, helping them to avoid any pitfalls.
Obviously, that is going to change when we leave the EU. There are currently some 55 million customs declarations from the UK each year. From January next year, even if a deal is reached, that is estimated to rise to around 300 million and there simply isn’t the capacity to deal with that as things stand.
What can the Chamber do to help members prepare for that scenario?
The team at the Chamber have been through internal training to be able to offer support as things change. We are less than 100 days from leaving the EU now and our focus is on giving members as much advice and guidance as possible, running webinars and trying to stay abreast of the announcements. It’s almost impossible for someone who is running a small business to find the time to keep pace with all the changes as they happen, so our role is to do that for them, to make sure they know where they are with everything and are prepared for new procedures.
Brexit preparations have inevitably been hit by the recent pandemic, what is the overall effect on the business community likely to be?
Lockdown had a devastating effect on business, everyone had to react quickly and find a new way of running their companies. The worry now is that the support that was provided, the furlough scheme and government grants, are going to come to an end and that is when we will see businesses face their real challenges. Cash flow is a major problem. Our latest membership survey shows that only around 30% of firms are working to full capacity. That is up on the figures in March and April, when it was only 16%, so a definite improvement, but it’s still a cause for concern. We still have the threat of local lockdowns, which, together with the ending of the support schemes and the final weeks of the Brexit transition period, are going to create some anxiety. But the business community is very resilient and has shown itself to be agile and flexible. Many firms are reviewing their business models and looking at new ways to work and most will find a way, and we will do our best to be there to support them.
What practical means of support are there?
Funding and grant schemes are announced periodically but are massively oversubscribed. Our aim is to keep members up to date on what is coming up and help them decide whether it’s appropriate to them, and so give them the best possible chance of securing valuable funding.
Together, we can help make schemes such as Kickstart work. This offers financial support for businesses who take on young people between the ages of 16 and 24, but it is only available where there are 30 or more placements available. That is, of course, untenable for most small businesses, but by acting as an intermediary, the Chamber is setting up a scheme where we can bring enough businesses together to meet that target, so that even those who only need one or two placements can benefit from the scheme.
If you were to sum up the benefits of Chamber membership, what would you say?
It is so important that we have a network of businesses that are keen to support one another. The Chamber sees itself as a conduit for businesses to come together, work together and to make sure that their issues are at the forefront of the changing landscape. We do the hard work on that, so that they don’t have to – we see ourselves as a critical business friend and firmly believe that we are stronger together.
Find out more about Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce at www.chamber-business.com