The Big Interview: Mark Bevan, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development & Industry

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Membership organisations, by their very nature, are good at blowing their own trumpet. It’s what gets them heard above the cacophony of public and political rhetoric.

Founded in 1931, and unashamedly non-political and not-for-profit, the Scottish Council for Development & Industry (SCDI) has been one of the country’s most vocal campaigners – up there with the likes of CBI Scotland, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Scottish Retail Consortium for garnering headlines.

It has benefited from its diverse membership base, encompassing a wide span of business sectors, trade unions, public agencies, universities, faith groups and the third sector. Now, almost 90 years on from its formation, the SCDI is looking to crank the volume up a little higher.

Ahead of its 2018 forum, due to take place in Edinburgh in May, the organisation has conducted a root-and-branch examination of what matters to its members and how it can play a lead role in shaping Scotland’s economic future. Key to this is collaboration – a word that the SCDI’s new chief executive Mark Bevan repeats several times as he spells out the group’s long-term vision.

“I don’t know if it’s down to indyref or Brexit, but publicly funded and private sector organisations alike are starting to lift their heads above the parapet a wee bit and comment on the way that Scotland is going and where it should go,” he says.

“The biggest standout thing for me is a failure to use the intent to collaborate in Scotland to deliver a better country. That stands out whether we are looking at membership organisations, governments, our education establishments or industry. There is a lot of goodwill and words surrounding ‘partnership’ but what we need is really meaningful partnership focused on the long-term and I just don’t see that happening at the moment.”

It’s unyielding stuff from someone just six months or so into the top post, but Bevan stresses his determination to carry out the wishes of his 1,200-plus members.

He says that when he was appointed, the organisation was already going through the process of consulting with the membership, helping it reconnect with its founding values and mission.

“We have had many conversations with members up and down the country, asking them what they thought about the SCDI and what it was best at,” says Bevan, who joined the group in the spring, replacing Ross Martin, who stood down earlier in the year.

“There was some great consistency that came out of that commentary – to refocus on a macro-economic level. We think there is a space in Scotland for a discussion about where the country is going and we need a bit of thought leadership there.

“When the SCDI puts out a position it’s one that can be tested across Scotland geographically, and across all sectors, both private and publicly funded. The membership was saying that is a really valuable asset and do not lose sight of it – don’t go down a public sector-only or private sector-only track.”

He adds: “Some people have understandably referred to the SCDI as a business membership organisation, though that actually makes up about 60 per cent of our membership. More than that it’s an organisation that wants to make Scotland a better place for all the people who live and work here, and that’s pretty close to what was drafted in 1931.”

In translating the mission statement into something tangible, the SCDI has agreed to work with its membership and the governments on both sides of the border to help write a blueprint for Scotland’s economy through to 2050.

Bevan describes it as a time horizon “that’s far enough out to engage in a political conversation, while allowing us to do some of the deep thinking about things such as the tax system and what that’s going to look like”.

He talks of “some pretty significant demographic challenges” facing the economy, including a rapidly ageing population and a working-age populace that will grow at 1 per cent at most, “fundamentally altering” the tax base of the country and its public service requirements.

“I don’t see anyone who is talking seriously about that and what it might mean, while working collaboratively to design the systems that we will need in the future,” says Bevan, a former director of environmental charity Keep Scotland Beautiful.

“I have been heartened by the conversations we’ve had with both governments in that they are interested in taking a long view. We have to help them with that and we have a diverse enough membership to be able to do that. These members can not only be a part of the economy but start to influence it. That helps us to shift the finger-pointing paradigm, where the public sector is a load of rubbish or the private sector is over-bloated. Increases in productivity and economic growth in the future are going to come through greater degrees of collaboration between unlikely collaborators.”

He adds: “A future in Scotland where we have what can be public and private sector competitors working with one another to really make the economy a better place for everybody is really what we are aiming for.

“If you take the longer view it helps to look at some of the stuff we already know. Our education system, for example, is struggling and we need to question whether we are going to have the right skills for the future.”

In the wake of Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s Scottish Budget last week, which, if passed, will see income tax bills rise for three out of ten taxpayers, the SCDI issued a guarded response, warning that tax hikes are not a panacea in developing a sustainable future economy for Scotland.

In a drafted response (our interview was conducted just prior to Thursday’s Budget speech) Bevan said: “This is a progressive, mature and significant use of Scotland’s income tax powers. However, it comes on the back of a sustained period of weak growth for the Scottish economy.

“We need to review whether the revenues forecast are actually raised. An independent analysis of the spending priorities needs to be undertaken in light of ring-fenced financing and the pressures on public services. We need a stronger correlation between our ambitions for society and the ability of our economy to deliver – this is a sign from government to link the two. But we can’t tax our way out of our inequalities, labour market deficits, low productivity and stagnating growth.”

Bevan says cracking the productivity nut is fundamental to the nation’s long-term economic fortunes, and insists that the process is not rocket science, returning to that C-word once again.

“If you look at businesses that are doing well and look at the countries that are doing well there is a common ground of genuine collaborative effort that is behind it. That’s the backcloth that we need to create in Scotland – take the good intent that there is around and turn that with a focus and a rigour of evidence into meaningful and directive collaboration.

“What could Scotland really be famous for? What are our genuine natural competitive advantages? What about thinking of Scotland as a natural global headquarters for responsible businesses? There are things that we could go for here and we need all of the players in our economy to work together to identify what these things are and to build them into their individual businesses and public organisation strategies and really go for them.”

The pragmatic approach extends to the nurturing of international trade links and breaking down the barriers to entry for smaller businesses, in particular. Bevan points to the complexities of pushing into overseas markets and the need for practical, hand-holding advice.

“One of the things we are looking at is getting a bunch of SMEs on a train to London and providing a bit of tutorial,” he says, “then get them on a Eurostar to France having matched them up with people they can trade with. It’s very practical hands-on stuff, not getting on a jet to China.”