There’s a new name and new money for UK tech, as the government confirms plans to expand support for digital business growth across the country, and double talent visas. But is the money enough, and will the new workers fill the growing post-Brexit talent gap? Julian Blake reports.
Tech City UK, the government agency set up to promote the east London digital startup cluster, is being renamed Tech Nation, as the government steps up its UK-wide role and commits £61m to support new tech hubs, public service innovation and training for young people.
The government is also doubling the number of ‘exceptional talent’ visas it issues to 2,000 in a bid to fill the post-Brexit talent gap. Those visas will not be restricted to tech talent.
In a set of announcements ahead of next week’s budget, the government confirmed that it is allocating £61m across three key areas:
- £21m over four years to turn London-based Tech City UK into ‘Tech Nation’, with 10 new city hubs
- £20m for Ai innovation in #govtech public services
- £20m for training young people.
The new Tech Nation organisation, bringing together and expanding the operations of Tech City UK and Tech North, will operate in 10 hubs. TCUK has confirmed that as well as London these will be:
Tech Nation has emerged from a three-year-old Tech City UK project to promote digital business clusters UK wide.
In a blog post, Tech City UK said: “Thriving digital tech clusters have sprung up all over the country from Bristol and Bath in the West Country, to Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland. But if the UK is to retain its position as Europe’s centre for tech, we need to develop and strengthen these clusters into a nation-wide network of digital excellence. We need to think and act as one Tech Nation.”
TCUK said entrepreneurial skills would be a focus, with the expansion of the existing Digital Business Academy to support more than 40,000 people, along with up to 4,000 startups looking to scale. Tech North programmes including Founders Network and Northern Stars will expand nationwide.
On first look, the £21m funding for the revamped Tech Nation agency appears a five-fold increase on the combined budget of Tech City UK and Tech North.
As is often the case with government funding announcements, closer scrutiny shows that the injection is less generous than it appears.
With a combined TCUK and Tech North annual budget of £4.1m, a standstill over four years would total £16.4m. The new £21m is over four years and is in addition to TCUK’s budget, but excludes the £2m annual commitment for Tech North , which is being subsumed into the new Tech Nation organisation.
Per year, then, the new commitment is £5.2m, plus TCUK’s new £2.1m, totalling £7.3m. This compares to £4.1m now, so the new level of funding is not quite double the existing amount, and will need to cover all 10 tech hubs.
In a separate announcement, the government confirmed a new £2m voucher system to improve broadband connectivity in six regions.
More than 1.4m people now work in the UK digital tech sector, says the government, with jobs being created at twice the rate of other sectors, with average salaries 30% higher than the national average. The sector has a turnover of over £118bn.
At a meeting with tech business leaders at Downing Street on Wednesday, prime minister Theresa May said the tech sector had “the full backing of government”.
She said: “Helping our world-class entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed is how we lay the foundations for our prosperity and build an economy fit for the future. Technology is at the heart of our modern industrial strategy, and we will continue to invest in the best new innovations and ideas, in the brightest and best talent, and in revolutionary digital infrastructure.
“And as we prepare to leave the European Union, I am clear that Britain will remain open for business. That means Government doing all it can to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector and ensure people in all corners of our nation share in the benefits of its success.”
The £61m commitment was today welcomed but put into the context of the £6.7bn invested by tech VCs in the UK in 2016 alone.
The tech business sector has been making increasingly frantic noises about the impact of Brexit, on talent, access to finance ad business confidence. Ahead of a major conference in London this week, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates cautiously welcomed the news on investment and visas as “a good start”.
“However, in the context of the industry’s requirements, the investment and support needs to be far more substantial to underpin what could be a world-leading technology sector. The £61m investment announced is equivalent to what Ireland’s VCs invest in our startups annually and represents about an eighth of what the SoftBank Vision Fund recently invested in Improbable in just a single deal.”
“For this backing to really be meaningful, it must be the start of a series of targeted investments and an overhaul of the UK’s immigration system to ensure the UK tech sector is able to access the international talent it needs.”
Article amended November 16. Thanks to Paul Smith.