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The Richard Spooner Column: Feasting at the top table

22 May 2020

It was with some considerable pride that I read yesterday a story that Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce still have a seat at the top table of British politics.

Since I began my term of office as its first president in 1813, the Chamber has always been the go-to organisation for anyone wanting to test the strength of the business heartbeat in the centre of the country.

Daily our views are sought by news organisations of all shapes and sizes and this week they included the Wall Street Journal, no less.

But what caught my eye was a communication with the rather bland moniker of “WM Restart Stocktake Meeting”.

Behind this title that only a civil servant could come up with lay and invitation to the Chamber chief for him to join a significant meeting of high-powered political figures, including Cabinet ministers.

And it was a significant feather in his and the Chamber’s cap that Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce were the only non-public body represented.

It is often overlooked that the Chamber is a totally independent organisation working in the best interests of private enterprise. We do, of course, work closely with the public sector but our main purpose is dedicated to supporting businesses from the largest international organisations to the smallest enterprises.

And this week’s digital gathering gave the chief the opportunity to put our views to people holding some of the highest offices in the country. 

They included local Government minister Robert Jenrick and business secretary Alok Sharma. They were putting their heads together - figuratively in this Covid-19 crisis of course - as part of a group led by West Midlands mayor Andy Street to discuss the severity of the crisis in the region and the steps required to recover.

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey joined the webinar, along with regional stake holders such as Birmingham City Council leader Cllr Ian Ward, West Midlands Combined Authority chief executive Deborah Cadman and Transport for West Midlands managing director Laura Shoaf.

Our chief, Paul Faulkner, set out the challenges facing businesses in the wake of the pandemic and the support required to adapt to the post-lockdown measures.

He put across key points on behalf of anchor businesses such as the NEC Group, Birmingham Airport and Jaguar Land Rover, as well as the region’s retailers.

He was able to share this platform of with a group of people who are doing everything they can to keep the region moving during this exceptional crisis.

And he was able to draw on some of the magnificent work that has been put together by the Chamber’s policy team including the continually updated ‘Mind the Gap’ report, which is shaped by direct feedback from hundreds of Greater Birmingham businesses. 

He gave credit where it was due, like the government’s uptake of the furlough scheme and Bounce Back Loans. But he also pointed out that there are still gaps in their policies that are hindering businesses from developing a clear plan on action in order to get their staff back to work in a safe manner.

The mixed messaging we’ve seen this week in relation to non-essential retail and quarantining at airports was a case in point, he pointed out.

But he said the Chamber would continue to work with the mayor and other key local stakeholders to plot a path to recovery which at its heart reflects the wider needs of the business community.

And it is gratifying to us that he was the sole representative of private business in an arena of leading politicians and public sector figures.

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