London Mayoral candidates go head-to-head on technology policy

From abolishing tuition fees for STEM subjects to recognising broadband as a “core utility” and using the tech sector to prevent terrorist attacks, the five London mayoral candidates set out their policies for the tech industry

Ahead of London’s mayoral election in May, the five candidates went head-to-head in debate in an attempt to convince the technology sector that they support the capital’s booming tech industry.

Last month, event organiser Tech London Advocates, together with IT trade body TechUK and Centre for London, published a mayoral  tech manifesto, lobbying for a “truly digital city”.

The election candidates all said they supported the manifesto which included recommendations on areas such as “future-proofing London”, infrastructure, investment, skills and immigration, and a digital London government.

While the debate yesterday (9 February) stayed less than controversial, with the candidates keen to come across as enthusiastic supporters of London as a tech capital, perhaps the most contentious point was around immigration and skills, with Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith arguing that current immigration policy is “distorted”. London startups have called for an easing of immigration restrictions to allow more digital skills to come to the capital from overseas.

“I would prefer us to have a much more global immigration approach,” said Goldsmith. “Immigration is one of the things that has made London the greatest city on earth. It’s hard when you have an open door policy in Europe which then restricts immigration from other countries."

UKIP’s Peter Whittle went a step further and argued that the UK needed to leave the EU to take advantage of foreign skills, and said UK businesses were “hampered and strangled” by EU restrictions.

“The kind of people the tech industry need - software developers, engineers - the places that they might come from, say, India, South-East Asia, even America, they have to go through all sorts of hoops,” he said.

At perhaps the most contentious point in the debate, Whittle's comment received a prompt reply from the Greens' Sian Berry, who said she couldn’t see how “restricting the enormous talent pool that is in Europe is going to help”.

Closing the skills gap

The mayoral candidates agreed that it’s not just immigration that could help tackle the skills gap London’s tech sector is facing - apprenticeships were also supported across party lines.

Labour’s Sadiq Khan said he would set up a “tech talent pipeline”, similar to the $10m programme set up by New York City mayor Bill De Blasio to train New Yorkers for high-tech jobs.

Khan said his ”Skills for Londoners” programme would be “better” and would have a strategy not just for training people in the right skills the tech sector needs, “but support for quality digital apprenticeships and a more diverse tech workforce for the future”.

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While Whittle wants to abolish tuition fees for all science, technology engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, Liberal Democrat candidate Caroline Pidgeon wants to set up a “brokerage at City Hall” where young people can be matched with suitable apprenticeships, and have a pan-London career service to encourage young people to enter the tech sector.  

Goldsmith, who admitted that “the language of coding is about as alien to me as Swahili” but is “hugely excited about what technology means for London”, wants a better matchmaking service between the provision of skills training and the job market.

He proposed to cluster up local authorities with businesses in the area to make sure people are trained specifically for what is needed in the borough.

Broadband for all

The tech manifesto raised infrastructure as a serious challenge as the city grows, with office space at a premium and broadband connectivity poor in some areas.

Both Khan and Pidgeon said they would establish superfast broadband as a core utility, something no one in the capital should be without, but the Liberal Democrate candidate pointed out that office space “is a bigger challenge than broadband speed”.

She said the government’s “relaxation of rules” which allow developers to convert commercial property into residential use without planning permission, “needs to stop”.

Goldsmith said that rolling out broadband can be “achieved relatively easy” and suggested partnering with the private sector to use Transport for London’s (TfL's) existing network to turn it into a “superfast broadband network.

“It needn’t cost a penny of public money. There are mobile phone providers who want to be able to use the tunnels in the TfL network and are happy to pay for the network,” he said.

Unsure on Uber

Unable to discuss infrastructure without mentioning the controversial taxi-hailing app Uber, most of the candidates called for “proper” regulation for private hire vehicles.

Goldsmith said he would like to see a “clear separation” between black taxis and hire vehicles, and claimed that without it “black cabs will go exinct.”

Khan wants to “level the playing field” and limit the number of private hire vehicles, while the Greens' Sian Berry said she worried Uber cabs were “taking trips away from public transport and increasing congestion”.

Overall, the candidates all seemed to agree that London needs to thrive as a technology hub and promised to champion the city as the digital capital of the world, should they be elected mayor.

Goldsmith also pointed out that the tech sector could help the government dealing with “the threat of terror”.

“You are better placed than anyone else in the world to understand and disrupt online parts to radicalisation, something the authorities, if we're honest about it, are really struggling with," he said. 

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