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  • Writer's pictureMike Spicer

Unpacking the role of local business networks in economic development

In this episode of LED Confidential, David and Mike are joined by the CEO of Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, Sara Williams OBE. They explore the role of business networks like Chambers of Commerce in shaping the places they call home. How do they establish clear priorities for local economies? Work alongside other, sometimes competing, agendas? What do they make of institutional changes like the end of Local Enterprise Partnerships in England? And what reforms do they want to see after the coming UK general election? In this blog, we summarise and dissect the main themes from the episode.

map of UK with electrical circuitry linking cities

What is the role of local business networks like Chambers of Commerce in economic development?

Local business networks like Chambers of Commerce play an important role in placemaking. As the voice of local businesses, they bring informed perspectives to economic discussions. They help foster understanding between businesses, local authorities, and other interests, smoothing out differences in reference points, mindsets, and jargon. But beyond civic activism, they also deliver real-world programmes. They do this across a variety of themes, from supporting SMEs in their energy-efficiency efforts to helping disadvantaged groups into work. Predating modern local government, Chambers in particular offer high name recognition and consistency for businesses amid an ever-evolving landscape of institutions, programmes, and policies.

As Sara herself argues in the episode, it's important for place leadership teams to engage with the full range of representative organisations, not just one or two businesses, to get the most comprehensive view of business needs; to understand the impacts of a strategy, project, or policy; and to account for opportunities and the challenges facing the business community.

How do business communities navigate the institutional changes in the local governance landscape?

For business associations active in civic life, navigating institutional changes within England's local governance landscape demands a keen understanding of the shifts of the past decade. From the rise and fall of Local Enterprise Partnerships to the evolving contours of city and county-based devolution, the terrain has been marked by significant upheaval. One of the roles of Chambers of Commerce is to translate and explain these changes for businesses and work through their implications with their national association, the British Chambers of Commerce. For instance, a widely held business concern in places like Staffordshire is that areas not covered by Combined Authorities or devolution deals will not receive fair support or attention in Whitehall thinking.

Improving collaboration between local businesses and local authorities

Local authorities often view Chambers as critical friends—constructive voices that articulate business concerns. This sometimes finds practical expression in initiatives like joint policy forums. In the episode, Sara argues that local government could leverage the value of business networks more by explaining plans, issues, and constraints to get business input and understanding. Chambers advise local authorities not to ‘go it alone’ and make use of people who are deeply invested in the success of the local area, like Chamber members. Sara describes the culture of the business community in Staffordshire as collaborative when working with local government, compared to more transactional or deal-making approaches seen in some other places.

Business priorities for local economic development and an incoming government

In the episode, Sara argues that the UN Sustainable Development Goals should guide local regeneration, and that businesses need to see more long-termism from whoever forms the next government. A top priority is strong, consistent policies on green issues, with many businesses having incorporated regulatory milestones into plans, only to see those timelines abandoned in the face of short-term political pressures. Developing the skills of the future workforce is seen as important to address the mismatch between what businesses need and what is offered. Addressing infrastructure deficits in road, rail, and digital networks is a consistently high priority for businesses. Planning and development control remain hot-button issues.


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