As the government seeks to remedy the immediate economic turmoil facing the country, it must not forget to take the long view too. Levelling up communities around the UK must not be neglected, and the tech industry sits at the very heart of that ambition.
The new government has inherited a robust and thriving digital sector. Investment into the UK’s world-beating technology companies has remained strong in 2022. So much so, that London is now the world’s number one destination for fintech investment for example, with £5.3bn raised in the first six months of 2022, according to figures from the Global Startup Ecosystem Report.
Whilst this is something to celebrate, this statistic is a reminder that the opportunities in the tech industry are not distributed equally across the UK. All too often, the abundance of opportunity and fruitful careers that the tech sector has to offer is confined to the UK’s ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson oversaw the advent of the Digital Skills Council, and committed £800m of investment into the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA) over four years.
ARIA will be part of the growth story of Britain’s high-value sectors, such as quantum computing and vaccination development, giving the UK the opportunity to become a pioneer in these markets that are at the forefront of change.
Johnson’s turbulent tenure also commanded the introduction of the Innovation Strategy in 2021 – which focused on nurturing the niche verticals in the science and tech fields, such as artificial intelligence, energy and environment technologies; and robotics and smart machines.
Yet, in hindsight and as Johnson ran out of runway, it has become clear the commitment to levelling up did not really deliver.
The rest of the nation still lags behind London and the South East. The new government must invest in much broader spending commitments to up-skill the population and provide high-quality skills training so that people are equipped with skills for the future.
Mini-budget promise and perils
The current chancellor’s mini-budget announcement holds promise for creating opportunities in the UK’s regions that so desperately need to have a stake in the success experienced in prosperous areas of the country. News that the government is in talks with 38 regions to create low-tax, low-regulation Investment Zones is particularly welcome, with cities and regions such as Blackpool, Cornwall, Hull, Norfolk, Tyneside, Somerset, Suffolk, and the West Midlands candidates that could benefit from this initiative.
This must be delivered carefully, however. The promise of large tax cuts in these zones runs a risk of displacing growth, rather than creating the seedbeds for new growth.
Crucially, the government must continue to forge and develop partnerships with the private sector too. Levelling up is ultimately everyone’s business – and the private sector has the know-how, funding and expertise to aid in the delivery of this crucial campaign.
This month, Global Tech Advocates will launch Tech West of England Advocates, creating a network that will connect tech leaders, aspiring technologists, entrepreneurs and investors from Bristol to Birmingham. Coincidentally, this group will launch during both Bristol and Birmingham Tech Week, which are both week-long celebrations of the digital sector in the West of England.
Whilst there are immediate priorities for the government to contend with, they must not forget to maintain, if not better, the previous government’s commitment to R&D spending. In the Autumn Budget of 2021, Sunak committed to increase R&D spend from 1.7% of GDP to 2.4% by 2027, a policy which really demonstrated a sense of responsibility to the future of Britain’s status as a tech and science superpower. However, the UK continually falls behind the G7 when it comes to R&D spend as a proportion of GDP.
It is here that the private sector, which historically has underdelivered in leveraging R&D investment, must also be ready to step up and play its part. When the competition for funding from the Treasury coffers is at an all-time high, the private sector should take on the lion’s share of turbo-charging R&D investment.
Levelling up needs private sector support
Levelling up requires careful thought and attention to the needs of each community. The barriers to employment that someone faces in Cornwall, such as poor connectivity and inaccessible public transport to work – may be entirely different to that of an individual living in Leeds city centre.
There is work to be done to strip down the barriers for entry into the digital sector. Short-term coding courses, for example, are often very intense and require evening and weekend work, which can prove difficult for neuro-diverse people and single parents who cannot access appropriate childcare.
Individuals must be provided with tailored support and mentoring to be able to take full advantage of the opportunity that the industry can provide.
Britain is a global leader in technology, and a science superpower – but this accolade must be shared. We often hear an awful lot from the government about levelling up, but we have to start seeing the results. The government is the convener and Truss must lead the direction of travel for levelling up while continuing to talk and collaborate with industry.
The private sector’s role is to support lifelong careers in the tech and science industries, and plough investment into the regions that need it most. A strong private-public collaboration could be the key to levelling up that the government has yet to find.
Russ Shaw CBE is the founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates, and a regular UKTN columnist.
Image credit: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street