Mayor of London hopefuls say they want to maintain capital’s tech success story, but immigration and skills is the biggest clash point
Five of the main candidates to become Mayor of London have all promised to support the capital’s technology industry if they succeed Boris Johnson on 5 May in a debate held at London’s Here East tech hub.
Sian Berry of the Green Party, Zac Goldsmith of the Conservatives, Sadiq Khan of Labour, Caroline Pigeon of the Liberal Democrats and UKIP’s Peter Whittle all outlined how they would help the tech community and debated topics ranging from digital skills and finance to immigration and diversity.
All five pledged at least some support for the tech manifesto published by industry body TechUK, Tech London Advocates and Centre for London, which called for a ‘truly digital’ Mayor of London and the appointment of a chief digital officer.
“Tech is at the heart of London’s economy,” said Khan, who predicted technology would become as important to the capital as finance. “I’m so excited by what’s happening in London – the innovation, the enterprise across our city.
“The language of coding is as alien to me as Swahili but I’m hugely excited about what tech means for London,” added Goldsmith, who praised Boris Johnson’s promotion of the tech scene. “London’s tech companies are making global waves and it’s time to scale things up.”
“The tech industry is one of London’s best assets right now,” agreed Whittle.
However all accepted more could be done. A perceived lack of adequate broadband and mobile coverage in some parts of London was seen as a problem, as were the rising costs of homes and office space.
Pigeon said she would endeavour to ensure offices could not be turned into residential units without planning permission, while Berry and Goldsmith also voiced concerns.
“[We are] at risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” quipped Khan.
Berry, who is the only candidate who has experience in the technology industry, wanted to improve access to finance for firms.
“We need to be making sure we our own Silicon Valley here,” she said. “We shouldn’t just rely on American companies to grow.”
“British businesses are strangled by the weight of regulation and directive that come from Brussels,” he argued. “Even if they do not trade with the EU, all businesses have to deal with EU regulations. Such over-regulation stifles entrepreneurship. I believe that none of this needs to be the case. Tech businesses would be better off outside the EU.”
Pigeon disagreed: “We have to maintain our membership of the European Union. The EU guarantees a steady stream of businesses who want to be in London.”
The skills shortage was another issue raised. There was broad support among the candidates need to train Londoners to fill the jobs created by technology, but disagreement on foreign recruitment.
Khan promised to take a stand against “unfair” visa rules, while Goldsmith rued a “distorted” immigration approach that favoured Europe over the rest of the world. Whittle once again insisted EU membership was bad for the tech scene.
“The kind of people the tech industry needs like software developers come from places like India, the USA – they have to go through so many hoops,” he said. “But someone from the EU has a n automatic right to be here and that is putting a lot of pressure on non-EU immigrants.
“The only way you can rid of that and have a completely level playing field is to have an Australian point system and leave the EU.”
Pigeon countered by suggesting such a system would be restrictive. She also voiced concerns about a lack of diversity in the industry, an opinion echoed by Berry.
“As someone who works in tech and a woman, I’m quite disappointed.”
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