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Mayor Of London 2016: Green Party’s Sian Berry Knows Tech Issues ‘First Hand’

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Green Party candidate Sian Berry explains to TechWeekEurope how she would promote the tech sector, diversity within IT and use technology to improve the capital

Green Party candidate Sian Berry hopes her experience of working in the digital sector will help her secure the support of London’s technology community in her quest to become Mayor of London.

Berry previously worked as a website manager for Imperial College London, a role which required a lot of “crunching data” and is confident that open data, the appointment of a chief digital officer and smart city initiatives can boost the technology sector – and achieve her green ambitions for the capital.

“I know many of the tech sector issues first hand,” she told TechWeekEurope. “I know how important this fast growing industry is to London and its people.”

Tech support

Sian Berry Green PartyMany of the issues affecting tech companies, she said, are the same as those impacting other types of small business – the availability of office space, affordable rents for employees, and connectivity.

“Business of all kind are frustrated with the issues of broadband coverage,” she explained. “There are serious gaps and there are issues with people moving offices.

“The Mayor of London has the power to put someone in office, a chief digital officer (CDO) who can act essentially as a deputy mayor for the tech industry. We have a lot of SMBs, tech business in London, we need to nurture them.

“We’re in a good position, people want to move here. The next Mayor better not ruin that.”

Smaller companies, she claimed, felt they were being excluded from the current Mayor of London’s foreign trips to promote London’s tech scene – something that would be reversed if City Hall was Green.

Similarly, she said she would do everything to ensure finance was available to startups, not just from private investment but also a ‘Bank of London’ which would assist SMBs in all industries.

“We need to be making sure we have our own Silicon Valley here. We shouldn’t just rely on American companies to grow.”

“[The technology industry] is so important for job growth. We have to let that continue.”

Berry added that restrictive immigration policies would affect the ability for tech companies to recruit the best talent, but she also wants firms to train up people closer to home and encourage diversity within the industry.

“As someone who works in tech and a woman, I’m quite disappointed.”

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Improving the capital

Tube London UndergroundBerry also thinks technology can improve the way the capital is run. Digital democracy initiatives, free computers in libraries and open data are examples of how tech can be used to make the capital more inclusive and efficient.

More datasets and APIs would allow developers to create applications that government would be simply unable to envisage, while smart city initiatives would make the city greener.

“I’ve spent years campaigning for open data,” she said. The benefits of sharing data to plan transport data and giving people real time information is wired into me. I think you need someone in city hall who understands things. I think I do understand that.

“There is a huge opportunity. We did things during the Olympics but we haven’t kept to it. [Data was used] to have people travelling to work at different times. We need to reduce traffic.

“In terms of energy saving there are huge benefits were not taking advantage yet. We could be a pioneer for that in London and we’ve massively lost our way under Boris Johnson.

“Data Centres, because of what they primarily do, consume electricity. There are better ways [of cooling]. London can help with that.”

Green ambitions

london black cabBut would these green ambitions actually thwart the capital’s tech sector? The Green Party is opposed to new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow and one of Berry’s manifesto pledges is to close down London City airport and turn it into housing.

The airport’s proximity to the Docklands and City make it attractive for those working in finance, especially since routes are to other capitals of commerce in Europe and New York. Will this not close off routes to the funds that Berry hopes will allow tech startups to expand?

“No,” she replied. “The key thing with city airport is that when Crossrail opens is that there were by little impact. Business flights are set to drop when it opens. That land would be much better as homes. Look where it is. Right by the city. The trade-off is [worth it].”

For any prospective mayor, the issue of security is a hot topic. The Green Party opposed mass surveillance in its 2015 General Election manifesto – a whole section was devoted to the issue of ‘digital rights’ – and Berry was keen to reiterate this view while acknowledging the need to keep Londoners safe. She called for judicial oversight, not mass surveillance.

“There has to a balance but there are core principles you can’t break,” she explained. “I think you should get into systems if there are suspicions. Blanket surveillance, where everyone is a suspect,  – that’s where you run into issues of free speech and democracy.

“We shouldn’t use security as an excuse. We need to have a democratic oversight. We can’t let concerns about security override fundamental human rights. You need intelligence.”

Quiz: What do you know about London’s tech scene?