View from the top: Shevaun Haviland, BCC Director General

The new Director General at BCC, Shevaun Haviland, talks with Energy Focus about her new role, post-COVID-19 recovery, COP26 and empowering SMEs to stake their place in the green economy

Congratulations on being appointed the BCC’s new Director General. What are your strategic and operational priorities?  

It’s a privilege to be asked to lead one of the UK’s most influential business representative organisations, and to see firsthand the brilliant work carried out by our network of 53 accredited chambers in the UK and 74 affiliated organisations across the world. I am passionate about business as a force for good. Having run a number of companies, I know employment and prosperity is crucial to drive aspiration, achievement and mutual support for whole communities, across different generations.

My most important functions are first, to help accredited chambers’ members rebuild from the pandemic, establish new trading relationships and tackle the climate crisis; and secondly, to make sure our members’ voice is heard on every crucial issue across the UK and beyond, particularly on trade, climate and levelling up. Our roots are local, but our reach is global, and my role is to make sure we bring those two elements together at a national level.

As the economy reopens, there will be great opportunities for UK businesses

How is Brexit impacting UK businesses, in terms of both positive and negative outcomes?

There has been a reduction in exports to the EU. There are different ways of measuring the change, but there is a consistent picture that some companies have given up exporting to the EU, or are exporting less. Our own survey work has showed that half of UK exporters were having difficulties adapting to changes. The biggest issue is the cost of Brexit red tape, in terms of sending goods from Great Britain to the EU and from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. With the introduction of new VAT rules on EU exports, e-commerce has been even more complex and frustrating for smaller businesses.

I think there will be more impacts, not only as we see UKCA marking become mandatory more widely and more controls on imports into the UK from the EU, but also as business travel opens up.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease and trade opens up, do the lack of logistics and freight capacity internationally, and skyrocketing shipping rates, concern you?

We are concerned by rising raw material and shipping costs, which are creating clear inflationary pressures. We hear this directly from our chambers across the country. Shipping is an international marketplace for container hire – but more needs to be done, particularly by the largest trading nations, to address soaring costs for businesses and lack of capacity. On haulage, we are seeing shortages in HGV driver availability, caused by Brexit and the pandemic. The UK government should work closely with business and the haulage industry to deal with this. One solution is to tap international markets where there are available drivers by expanding the Shortage Occupation List.

The government has stopped financing overseas fossil fuel projects. Do you think SMEs will be disadvantaged by its removal of oil and gas support in the UK?

Businesses need certainty from government, and much more detail about how our domestic and exporter energy sectors will be expected to trade. Without that knowledge, it’s extremely difficult for businesses of all sizes.

Fewer than 10% of British companies export overseas – do you think enough is being done to address this export shyness?

We’ve set an ambition for government to work with business to double the number of firms, particularly smaller companies, that export. With the right incentives, reduced red tape, a strong strategy and excellent marketing for our goods and services, I’m confident we can supercharge our pandemic recovery through export-led growth. It needs an integrated approach to get the most out of our current and growing market access overseas. Our 74 international chambers will be a huge asset. If we can achieve this, the boost to our economy would be immense.

Do you think government and businesses are doing enough to deliver on the UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050?

Our research has consistently shown that chamber member businesses are taking measures to reduce energy consumption, either by cutting energy usage in offices and premises, or reducing travel. They cite concern about the environment as the key motivating factor.

However, many small businesses, especially those that have been in distress due to COVID-19, need direct support. The cost of transition is a primary barrier. The discussion about net zero needs to be more tangible to smaller firms – they need support getting the right information. That’s why we have teamed up with O2 to launch our Net Zero Hub. Businesses will also need financial incentives to overcome the costs of changing processes or investing in new products and services.

To what extent will you be involved in COP26, and what are the policy announcements that will have the most significant impact at the event?

We are planning a network-wide campaign that will make the most of our global reach. I want to flag the issues of future compliance needs, and the hurdles businesses will face and how to overcome these.

I think more needs to be made of the opportunities for trade in green goods and services, both at COP26 and through other UK government and World Trade Organization policy actions this year. That’s one reason why the BCC is making 2021 a Year of Trade.

Within the UK, significant positive change will only be delivered by finding the right balance between stretching overall targets and credible and achievable industry plans, with the focus on ‘carrot’ support rather than ‘stick’ measures. At global level, the clear challenge is to find the right amount of multilateralism without having to water down core ambitions.

Are you expecting green finance to grow fast in the coming years, and what impact will this have on businesses?

I think the future of finance in the UK is likely to look much greener as lenders, investors and businesses continue to adjust their risk appetite towards low-carbon products, with increased guidance and signposting to drive positive environmental change. However, the pace of change means many firms will need support in the transition to cleaner technologies. That means more collaboration between government, financial service providers and businesses to develop credible and detailed plans that stand the test of time.

The discussion about net zero needs to be more tangible to smaller firms – they need support getting the right information

What are your thoughts on the Apprenticeship Levy? Why is so much of it going unused? What needs to happen to unlock British investment in people skills?

Apprenticeships, although highly valued, are not the answer to all training needs, and many of our members want to see the levy reformed to make it easier for employers to upskill and reskill people. Over time, we’d like to see it evolve into a more general ‘training levy’ that can be used for all forms of accredited training.

Employers understand that they have to invest more in training – both for young people starting out and for adults already in the workplace. The government can support firms to invest more by using the tax system – for example by extending the Annual Investment Allowance to include training. Firms also need access to business support that helps them understand their skills gaps and achieve a return on their investment in training.

We need to make the skills system more agile and responsive to business’s needs. I am encouraged by the further education white paper and the Skills Bill, which will enable employers and training providers to work more closely to tackle skills shortages, and boost productivity and growth.

Although the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of SMEs, many have yet to take the plunge. As the founder of Digital Business Leaders, what advice can you give to SMEs to cure their fear of digital transformation?

The pandemic has pressed many SMEs to become more tech savvy. Think about it the same way as you would any other change – look at the options, understand your own business needs and opportunities, be realistic, weigh up the pros and cons, and don’t be bamboozled by jargon. If an ‘expert’ can’t put something in plain English, they usually aren’t an expert!

As the pandemic hopefully recedes, what do you predict in terms of a return to normal?

In April, when we asked businesses their longer-term plans, we found quite high levels of optimism – but more than a third (38%) said concern around further lockdowns was a barrier to re-opening. We have now reached stage 4 of the roadmap, and businesses have been given a lot more autonomy – but not enough guidance – on how to operate safely and build customer and employee confidence. This could slow the speed of the recovery.

In terms of the world of work, I think some things will probably go back to how they were – history shows this is often the case. Other changes that were already happening, such as the predominance of online food retailing, have been catalysed but may revert a bit; others, where the pandemic created change, will be sustained.

The balance of those three categories will shape how we work in the future. It’s impossible to know how they will play out, but we believe that as the economy reopens, there will be great opportunities for UK businesses, and accredited chamber members will have our network by their side.    

About Shevaun Haviland

Shevaun Haviland started as Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce in April this year, joining from the Cabinet Office, where she led on Business Partnerships and the Inclusive Economy Partnership.

Shevaun started her consultancy career in London and New York. She moved to a strategic planning role at the Walt Disney Company before joining Disneyland Paris, opening the second theme park. After this she ran global accounts for Millward Brown, Mindshare and WPP, before becoming a partner in start-up digital innovation agency and venture builder Independents United, and an adviser for the Danson Foundation.

More recently, she was the New Ventures Director for Avado, building new businesses in Edtech and founding the Academy of Digital Business Leaders.