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our nation is the need for more qualified, highly-skilled professionals…Yet because our current immigration system is outdated and inefficient, many high- skilled immigrants who want to stay in America are forced to leave .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

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.