In the last 6 months or so I’ve been increasingly involved in the work of the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce and it feels like I’m just starting to crack what previously seemed like the Chamber of Secrets.
Chambers of Commerce weren’t something I’d ever really heard of before, then a couple of years ago, my organisation hosted a Chamber breakfast meeting at our office, so I knew the name but not much more.
Then earlier this year I was invited to apply for the Chamber’s Young Person in Business award on the recommendation of Chris Hobson, currently the Head of Information & Representation at the Chamber but previously the East Midlands External Affairs Manager at NHF. Chris and I had only met once during his time with the NHF so I couldn’t believe he had put my name forward!
After submitting my award application and completing a 30 minute interview with the award sponsors, I made it through to the final 3. I was then invited to a Chamber drinks receptions for all the finalists of the eleven award categories. I was quite nervous about the event as, like most people, networking events are always quite uncomfortable. I was fortunate that the head of my department agreed to come with me, and after some awkward loitering by the buffet table, we got talking to a couple of finalists in the manufacturer of the year category.
They were from a company that makes fabrics for car interiors and my initial thoughts were what on earth could we find in common to talk about! But when they told us they have a factory in one of our most demanded towns, employing a couple of hundred people (and we’d never heard of them!), the common ground became obvious.
Since that first event, I’ve attended several other Chamber events including their inaugural East Midlands State of the Economy event (where we sponsored the drinks reception and where our CEO had the opportunity speak to Kenneth Clarke QC regarding Homes for Britain), the Derbyshire Member’s Council held at another large local manufacturer, a reception at Westminster to launch the Chamber’s manifesto with East Midlands MPs (including a part on housing in the infrastructure section that we were able to influence) and after Christmas I have been invited to a breakfast briefing with the MP for Derby North and to influence the hustings events the Chamber is planning with those standing for election in May.
I have also had a couple of meetings with Chris Hobson, including one with the CIH East Midlands board, to discuss the need for and the ways in which housing can engage better with the business community. One idea is to hold a procurement event where we can help SMEs become the major part of our supply chain.
I’ve seen so much benefit already just from the small amount of engagement that I‘ve had with the Chamber, such as the opportunity to influence local policy makers. But there are also great opportunities to think and act more like the businesses we claim to be. But I’ve found this is quite a difficult thing to do, for example, many other Chamber members have concerns about the Chinese economy, the cost of oil, the exchange rate, the location of the HS2 station in the East Midlands, energy prices etc. These are things I’ve really struggled to relate to and it made me wonder if housing is so insular because we can be? We are self-sufficient in many ways so we have been able to get away with ignoring these issues that others are stressing over.
But there is a lot of common ground to be found, including what devolution should look like, addressing the skills shortages we’re experiencing, how local authority cut are affecting businesses that rely on contracting with them, making sure customers have enough money in their pocket to spend with businesses, problems with planning applications, etc. These are things we can no longer afford to be insular about.
I’m hoping to continue my involvement with the Chamber for the benefit of the whole housing sector and those we serve, and I’d love to hear others’ thoughts and experiences on this.