Shevaun Haviland, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, on how CAs can help navigate uncertainty
Shevaun Haviland, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, tells Laurence Eastham how businesses can navigate economic uncertainty – and the crucial role that CAs will play
At the start of this year, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) published its latest Quarterly Economic Survey. As the UK’s biggest private sector survey, run since 1989, and arguably the voice of British business, it is an important resource for the Chancellor, the Bank of England and anyone with an interest in taking the economic temperature.
Businesses, because of their nature, can move, change and adapt much quicker than government can.
Amid Brexit and pandemic upheaval, and intensifying economic headwinds, the BCC’s role in advocating for British business has seldom been more important – so too the need for finance professionals to connect with its work. The BCC itself sits at the heart of a network of UK businesses – with more than 80,000 members and 53 chambers, all rooted in their localities – and provides a powerful voice for those business communities. In addition, it has 76 international chambers to draw on for a global perspective.
For Shevaun Haviland, Director General of the BCC, the breadth and diversity of its membership, the range of knowledge and perspectives, are what makes the body unique – and ideally situated to offer advice and practical support at national, regional and local levels. Haviland took up her role there in April 2021, prior to which she had spent five years at Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, as Head of Business Engagement and the Inclusive Economy Partnership respectively.
“People often think about the Chambers and its focus on SMEs, which are 95% of the businesses in our country. But the large employers of their areas are all members too. Amazon, for example, is a member of eight different chambers where it has distribution centres. BCC represents voices big and small,” she notes.
This direct line to grassroots British business and the chance to help lead the way to economic recovery made the BCC role an exciting opportunity for Haviland. The outlook of government is an awkward combination of long-term projects and policy development, along with the daily and weekly issues of running a nation. “Businesses, because of their nature, can move, change and adapt much quicker than government can,” she notes. “That was a really interesting learning for me – the different levels of risk and reward.”
And there are plenty of each to address, both at a policy and practical level for UK business, still reeling from recent challenges. BCC research showed members are hoping for an economic handbrake on the cost of raw materials and supply chain disruption, with 60% of businesses expecting to need to put their prices up, having recently absorbed a huge rise in costs.
Labour shortages are also a big issue – even if businesses find enough people to employ, Haviland says they’re seeing high turnover and in sectors such as IT where recruitment is moving very fast, wage bills are going up quickly – by 40% in some cases, she has heard. And for the first time since the Quarterly Economic Survey began, inflation was cited as the number one concern for businesses in Q3 and Q4 2021.
Despite the significant challenges, Haviland insists the outlook remains optimistic. “We’re definitely seeing green shoots of recovery. We’re trying to partner with government to ensure that the business environment is one that helps businesses grow and thrive. It’s a question of trying to keep that momentum going. Let’s nurture those green shoots.”
Part of bouncing back arguably involves a resilience around the ability to plan for the future with confidence. But with growing domestic and international pressures, economic uncertainty is clouding the picture for businesses trying to focus on investment.
As such, the BCC has recommended the government creates contingency plans and builds a Covid-19 framework for the future. “If we do have another variant, what measures and therefore what business support should be put in place? What does living with Covid look like?” asks Haviland. The BCC has called for the government to consider delaying the April national insurance increases until the economy is in a stronger position.
“Trade is at the core of what we do,” says Haviland. “About 10% of UK businesses and 60% of Chamber members export. So, it’s a real capability for us. And we deliver trade advice, trade documentation, customs declarations and, of course, 76 international chambers to give you a soft landing into being able to trade abroad.
“At the beginning of 2021 our research showed 40% of businesses were having significant challenges with the new ways of trading with the EU. What was more concerning is that when we did the same research in October, this had gone up, not down, as we had expected. This is something we’ve been able to feed back into the ongoing conversations we’re having with the government.”
Skills is another key focus, looking at how to bridge the shortages that leave UK businesses without the necessary talent pipeline – and that will also have significant impacts on digitisation.
“When the [Brexit] agreement was put in place,” she says, “the view was that there would still be a number of things we would have to continue to negotiate, one of which is very important for ICAS members: the recognition of mutual professional qualifications. There’s still a lot of work to be done there.”
On a local level too, the BCC is actively addressing a possible talent shortfall, working with government on the local skills improvement plans that convene businesses to ask what abilities they need now, and expect to need in five years’ time – then joining that up with providers such as FE colleges.
But it is perhaps the wider business-with-purpose agenda that is the longest game for British business – and a place in which CAs have a crucial role to play in driving the future economy.
Only 11% of businesses surveyed by the BCC currently measure their carbon footprint and while businesses may recognise the importance of sustainability, they often don’t know how to go about it. In response, the BCC’s Climate Challenge Hub was launched to help businesses find out more about the issue and target net zero. Chamber members are helping to find funding for businesses to lower their carbon footprint and drive green innovation.
“Net zero is important in the government’s set targets, but ultimately it’s business that’s going to deliver them,” says Haviland. And it will be finance professionals that they look to in order to ensure sustainability and profit are in balance. As such, the green revolution is a clear beneficiary of the evidence-based efficacy in which CAs are expert. They will play the pivotal part in turning it from greenwash to accountable action, embedded in business operations, with clear metrics for success.
By creating and recommending rigorous measurement and reporting frameworks, CAs will enable businesses to measure and track their true contribution to society – something essential in an economy where it is not simply financial return that drives decision-making.
Elsewhere, regional inequality in the UK has long been an inhibitor of economic activity, something the BCC network is keen to address, and which should help boost the government’s levelling-up agenda. This is another area in which CAs are able to contribute key guidance and vital data.
“Local business growth drives local economic prosperity, which is the core of strong, sustainable communities” says Haviland. “But we need to be clear on the metrics. What are we measuring? How do we know if we are ‘levelled up’?
“We believe that our members are a force for good in their communities. They already employ local young people, support their local communities and improve their built environment – but how are they telling that story? How do you measure and talk about the social value that you’ve built, which people think is a cost but actually should be an asset?”
It’s at this frontier that Haviland notes ICAS members can take a strong role in shaping the future of British business. “What we’re trying to work out for our members is how to do this without being terribly onerous,” she says. “The UN sustainable development goals feels like a strong framework because it’s globally accepted by business – but it’s quite high level. The question for ICAS members is how can they really help their own businesses think about these new areas?”
ICAS training partner BPP is running a sustainability reporting course during 2022