London's Silicon Roundabout needs more employees with the right skills. Photo: Getty
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Immigration policy is holding back the UK's tech boom

The government's ambitious project of putting coding on the national curriculum is exactly what UK tech needs. But in the short term, immigration policy is holding us back.

One of the biggest economic challenges facing our nation is the need for more qualified, highly-skilled professionals…Yet because our current immigration system is outdated and inefficient, many high- skilled immigrants who want to stay in America are forced to leave . . . Some do not bother to come in the first place.

Signed by executives from the likes of Google, Facebook and Yahoo these are the words of a letter sent to President Obama last year to argue for the relaxation of US immigration controls. It is striking how accurately they apply to Britain today.

Since 2003 Europe has produced $30bn technology startups; 11 of them were created here in the UK. Russia, the second best performer, produced only five.

From fast-food marketplace JustEat to financial technology giant Markit, the UK tech sector is paving the way for a new era of explosive economic growth. But just as it begins to hit full stride — in London 27 per cent of all new jobs are created by technology-focused businesses — Britain’s tech sector is in danger of being hamstrung by a shortage of skills.

My own company, Quill, has a team of 26 and is currently trying to fill 17 vacancies despite growing over 100 per cent year-on-year. The simple truth is that our education system does not cultivate the right skills to satisfy the demands of our burgeoning tech sector.

In fairness, the government has not been idle in the face of this threat; coding will now be a compulsory part of the national curriculum for UK students between the ages of five and 16.

This is a welcome reform and sees Britain leapfrog some of the world’s leading tech-hubs – including the US. But while the coalition’s long-term efforts to boost the supply of homegrown talent are to be applauded, they are not a solution to the short-term problem. The skills gap in this country is hurting British competitiveness now and, if the government fails to act, it threatens to see the UK fall behind.

It’s frustrating that the steps being made by the Department for Education are being countered by the Home Office’s increasingly regressive position on immigration. There is much talk about which political party the rise of Ukip has damaged most; the truth is that Britain’s technology industry stands to be the biggest victim of its influence on the immigration debate.

As things stand, companies looking to bring talent to the UK from outside of the EU must apply for a specialist Tier 2 visa. In 2013 just 10,179 such visas were granted, considerably below the 20,700 cap. Far from reflecting a lack of demand, such figures are testament to the mire of red-tape around the current system, red-tape that hits small businesses – who lack sophisticated compliance infrastructures – disproportionately hard.

According to research conducted by business intelligence company Duedil and the Centre for Entrepreneurs, companies founded or co-founded by migrant entrepreneurs total 14.5 per cent of all UK businesses and employ 1.16m people around the country.

Unless the government does more to recognise the enormous value that migrant talent offers our economy then those benefiting from educational reforms today may not have a world class tech sector to employ them in a decade’s time.

Britain must rethink its attitude to immigration, because as we cast aside the talented migrants seeking to live and work in the UK, our competitors, from Berlin to Bangalore, are welcoming them with open arms.

In 2012, the US reached its high-skill immigration cap of 65,000 in just five days. Our schools have begun a steal a march on their American counterparts; if our immigration system can do the same then perhaps when the next Google is born, it will be on these shores.

Ed Bussey is the founder and CEO of Quill Content

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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