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8A QUESTION OF SUPPORT First of all, we should understand that

the relationship between the Government and the chambers is an uneasy one. Dr Marshall is fairly brutal in his assessment that “there are no political parties that are truly 100% pro-enterprise”. He doesn’t entertain the idea of direct support from the Government, dismissing it as an “irrelevant question, as we exist to serve our members. We are of the private sector, for the private sector and by the private sector”. David Parlby, chief executive of

the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce explained the general reluctance to partner with Government. “The obvious answer is they should give us more money, but then we would be at the behest of Government. Genuine marshalling of the business community at large would be possible. There is currently no complete oversight at all (of businesses) in this country. We could then really start to identify what issues are affecting business.” The financial benefits for the chambers

to reinvest in the business community speak for themselves. At a national level, Dr Marshall explains their opposition to public law status. “It is not the same as Germany, where they have a different social, political and economic situation. On the continent the trend is a move away from public law status. Yes, it would provide a stable income stream. But there is no great appetite from members moving to this model”. So speaks the voice of the chambers in Westminster. After speaking directly to the leaders

of the chambers, I can better understand Lord Heseltine’s frustration that the

The cost of this freedom for the chambers is growth. The cost for businesses is a missed opportunity

chambers “regarded Business Link as an intrusion into their fiefdom.”

I can less understand his rationale that

the “reason we created Business Link was because the Chambers weren’t doing a good enough job. They themselves should have set up this combined advisory service. They should have gone to Government and said look you’ve got all these services, work with us and create the one-stop-shop. That’s what they should have done. We did it for them.” That was never going to happen, not

then, not now. It would be naïve to think otherwise.

The future of the chambers

Don’t expect to see revolution any time soon.

The chambers of commerce retain their

suspicion that any debt to Government (financial or otherwise) would compromise their integrity, and subsequently their ability to represent members. Dr Marshall explains “we are bottom up and to many in Westminster this seems odd. They think

we are difficult to control, they can’t put a finger on it, that we are variable. But we have real life on our side and I am proud of the fact that we are responding to local needs”.

I think that is all true. I also understand

that is precisely why the network has prevailed for two centuries, while those around it have come and gone. Even if compulsory membership was a palatable option for the chambers, it’s a non-starter as the individual organisations would almost certainly have to unify to make it work effectively. That would dilute their key strength, their autonomy to champion their own local members, without compromise or interference from government, or anyone else for that matter, even each other. The cost of this freedom for the

chambers is growth. The cost for businesses is a missed opportunity. The chambers look the most viable

option to become the national one-stop- shop needed so badly by businesses in this country. However, that goal requires consistency across the regions, centralised decision making and the ability to respond quickly in unison. Someone has to be in charge. It also requires a lot of investment (or support from Government). That would be unwelcome revolution in the chamber world. The chambers appear comfortable in

their niche and content to focus on what they do best, not just now, but for the next two hundred years. They let others do what they do best,

while sticking to what they know. They retain a deep understanding of their own purpose and shared vision, an under- standing that should be the envy of any organisation. For two centuries, the chambers of

commerce have been where business people of all walks of life have congre- gated, helping each other through community to become more than the sum of their parts, to have a louder voice together. In these hard economic times, I think that may be more important than ever before in the long history of the chambers of commerce.❖

Elliot Forte

is a director at Business Think and author of the book Intervention: The Battle for Better Business (available on Amazon). ☎ 01288 354228 8 Better Business No 189

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