Here's how to fix the UK's tech brain drain

Poor leadership, equally poor transport links and a shortage of finance are exacerbating the north/south divide in technology skills.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

According to think tank Policy Exchange, somewhere around 1.2 million people are now employed in the technology sector in the UK. The problem is that instead of being equitably distributed around the country, this employment is focused in the south-east.

It found the concentration of tech employment in the south-east is greater than the national average in as many as 47 of the 66 UK local authorities — for example, with Wokingham having more than five times the national proportion people employed in technology.

In London, 21 out of 33 local authorities have a higher proportion of workers employed in technology-related roles than the national average and between 2009 and 2012, 27 percent of all new jobs in London "could be attributed to the technology sector", Policy Exchange said. It estimates that there were 34,000 tech businesses in London.

The problem as Policy Exchange sees it is that responsibility for promoting technology is too often devolved to different organisations, meaning that individual areas do not have local champions. Inspired by the example of London mayor Boris Johnson, the think tank want to promote the idea of directly-elected mayors.

This is one of three key ideas being promoted by the Policy Exchange. They are:

  • Reviving the idea of directly elected mayors with "appropriately devolved powers to lead economic growth in their areas" including developing tech clusters.
  • Investing in rail and road infrastructure to better connect northern towns and cities.
  • Encouraging universities to let students retain the intellectual property of products or services they create while studying. Stronger bonds between the university and graduate may help retain more top quality entrepreneurs in the local area.

The think tank pointed out that the north/south brain drain is getting worse all the time. More than a third of graduates from major universities leave the north-east (37 percent) and north-west (36 percent) every year while in Yorkshire and Humberside this figure is as high as 55 percent.

Another part of the problem is confusion over responsibility for enterprise development, the exchange said. As many as 37 local authorities are covered by more than one Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), "creating a mismatch between the geography over which LEPs have responsibility and the business communities on the ground", the report said.

On the finance front, a study by the UK Business Angel Association found that businesses in London and the south-east attracted more than half (54 percent) of angel funding in 2012/13.

And then there is the transport issue where the exchange found that the average speed of journeys from Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield to London was 77.6mph. This compared with an average speed between those same northern cities of just 46mph.

"Slow journeys make it harder for people to move between clusters to access and share work, ideas and opportunities," the exchange said.

The Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank which the Daily Telegraph described as "the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right", while the New Statesman described it as prime minister David Cameron's "favourite think tank".

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