An organisation with roots reaching back 80 years is staying relevant to the challenges of today
Combining consensus with innovation is not normally a recipe for success; the latter is usually achieved by going against the grain of the former. The Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), which later this year will publish a new series of proposals to support economic recovery, is a happy exception.
Although its membership comprises a broad church of private and public sector organisations, it has been responsible for originating some of the more enduring business initiatives, such as industrial parks and trade missions.
“It brings together the wide community of Scotland – business large and small, local and central government, the third sector, the churches, the unions,” says its recently appointed chairman Robert Armour. “But they approach issues as SCDI members rather than representatives of single interests; it encourages people to reach a consensus on issues which, individually, they might not normally sign up to.
“In dealing with the facts – the questions we have to face on important issues – it brings self-discipline to deliberations, which means that what emerges is coherent. It demands an honesty which makes its conclusions more robust. Rather than taking a partisan position, it provides a way of having sensible debate based on the facts that will in turn inform policymaking.” For more than 80 years, the SCDI has played a powerful role in stimulating both business and industry. Its roots go back to the 1930s, when administrative devolution led to a numbers of bodies being established to aid and stimulate Scottish government and industry. In 1931, the Scottish Development Council was established to identify and develop solutions to the depression which was then affecting Britain.
It combined representatives of burghs and counties, industry, commerce and banking, trade unions and individuals. Early achievements included the establishment of the Hillington Industrial Estate in Glasgow and the development of regional policies.
During the Second World War, the Scottish Secretary, Tom Johnston, established the Scottish Council on Industry which worked with other bodies including the Scottish Development Council to provide economic advice.
The two bodies merged in 1946, creating the Scottish Council. The new organisation concentrated on attracting new industries and inward investment into Scotland. It set up a committee in New York in 1949 – the first time a European country had pursued such a course – and helped to attract companies such as IBM, Honeywell and NCR.
Encouraged by its success, the SCDI began to take its message around the globe, with a successful trade mission programme beginning in 1960. In the 50 years since, the organisation has led 360 cross-sector delegations to developing markets, such as the Soviet Union, China and South Africa, enabling 5,000 businesses to engage with 50 markets across the globe.
Today, SCDI is engaged in public policy issues, economic research and business information. It coordinates a network of 390 Young Engineers & Science Clubs which engage more than 5,000 primary and secondary pupils to encourage their interest in engineering, science and technology.
SCDI also organises programme of events from flagship conferences and dinners to informal networking opportunities.
In the past year, SCDI trade delegations visited India, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and China and Hong Kong in a programme in partnership with Scottish Development International (SDI) and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). A total of 54 businesses and organisations participated in the 2009-10 visit series, generating more than £3.5m of post-visit business. Working together with Glasgow City Council, its most recent trade visit reported £207,000 worth of business created, with 86 per cent of delegates saying they were successful in making new contacts.
Looking forward to 2010-11, it intends to expand its successful international trade programme from which it will capitalise on the increasing demand from the SME sector. With growth markets such as North America, Poland, Canada and United Arab Emirates all directly accessible by air from Scotland, there is huge potential for Scottish companies.
“We’re operating in a climate which has some parallels with the organisation’s origins,” said Armour. “Whether you are in the public or private sector, we are all impacted by what we have been through and the difficult times ahead. That brings you to the resources available and the balance between consumption now and investment in the future.” Armour is Scottish adviser to the EDF Energy Group, the UK arm of one of the world’s largest energy companies. Prior to his current role he was General Counsel of the British Energy Group, the electricity generator which operates eight nuclear power stations in the UK. “Energy is an area that keeps coming up; how can we take advantage of the low carbon economy, not just in energy supply but also in construction and transport,” said Armour.
With thousands of young people coming onto the jobs market over the next few weeks, skills remain a key issue: “It’s not just about people having the right skills but also employers being flexible in harnessing what people have to offer.” Businesses also need to work more collaboratively to create opportunities rather than looking to government. And they need to embrace the possibilities of exports; Scotland has a lower than average proportion of its private sector in the export market.
Where government must have a strong role is in ensuring that the right infrastructure exists to do business, whether it’s transport – high-speed rail should begin in Scotland and head south, not the other way round, said Armour – or that Scotland does not miss out on broadband roll-out, or making sure that the jumping off points for future exploitation of the North Sea is in Scotland rather than England or mainland Europe.
“The organisation is rooted in Scotland; it’s not a UK organisation,” said Armour.
“SCDI’s unashamed focus is on delivering economic growth in and for Scotland. In doing so, we’re not parochial at all – quite the reverse and most actively outward-looking in our aspirations, activities and ambitions.” SCDI’s Blueprint for the Scottish economy will be launched later this month.