UK plans $80M in tech initiatives, doubles tech visas to 2,000 to shore up support amid Brexit anxiety

While the UK continues to try to find solid ground to begin its contentious Brexit negotiations, the government has launched several initiatives to try to shore up support to (and from) the country’s technology industry.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond today announced that the UK would double the number of visas issued to “the brightest and best” talent (which includes, but is not exclusive to, tech) to 2,000.

On top of this, the UK government plans to commit £61 million ($80 million) to develop three areas: £21 million to expand Tech City (a London initiative up to now) into a new nationwide network called Tech Nation, with new hubs opening up in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Birmingham among 10 in total; £20 million to fund infusing new tech innovations like AI into public services; and £20 million to help train young people aged 14 to 18 to identify and ward off cyber threats.

The announcements were strategically made in the days leading up to the Budget, which is set to be announced next week, November 22.

They are aimed at reassuring the tech sector that despite the country’s efforts to leave the European Union — which have already seen the value of the pound drop drastically against other currencies, a softening of the housing market, and other fallout as people fret over the state of the British economy as it prepares to go it alone — it will continue to work on ways of bringing in more talent and will continue to support tech businesses in the country.

These are two areas that many fear will be irreparably impacted with the political changes, and so the Prime Minister was careful to call them out specifically in her remarks today.

“Our digital tech sector is one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries, and is supporting talent, boosting productivity, and creating hundreds of thousands of good, high-skilled jobs up and down the country. It is absolutely right that this dynamic sector, which makes such an immense contribution to our economic life and to our society, has the full backing of Government,” May said in a speech during an event today at Number 10 Downing Street (the PM’s official residence). “Helping our world-class entrepreneurs and innovators to succeed is how we lay the foundations for our prosperity and build an economy fit for the future. Technology is at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy, and we will continue to invest in the best new innovations and ideas, in the brightest and best talent, and in revolutionary digital infrastructure. And as we prepare to leave the European Union, I am clear that Britain will remain open for business. That means Government doing all it can to secure a strong future for our thriving tech sector and ensure people in all corners of our nation share in the benefits of its success.”

To be sure, the investments announced today are undeniably small when you compare them to VC funding into tech startups in the UK overall. In 2016, these totalled $9.5 billion, according to research from London and Partners.

There are also potentially question marks over just how much impact “Tech Nation” will have globally. As my colleague Mike puts it, La French Tech, the equivalent body in France, gets around £18 million annually and has made a big effort to raise its profile internationally. “Tech Nation doesn’t even have ‘UK’ in it.”

Perhaps more to the point, this is more of a sign of how the government, bolstered by an advisory board built from tech entrepreneurs and financiers, understands what the tech industry potentially means to the economy in the UK, and its position in the global economy, and this is a symbolic backing of it to restore some confidence.

Pointedly, one aspect that stands out for me is that the government is trying to decentralise its support beyond London. It sounds like the Home Office might be working to try to encourage visas to companies and people based outside of the capital city, while at the same time trying to speed up the process for getting them approved.

Tech Nation will cover some 40,000 entrepreneurs and 4,000 startups across the country in some 10 hubs to start with. The first set of these announced today will be in Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff and London. Four more clusters will be announced next week during the Budget.

“We are delighted to hear that the Government wants to increase Tech City UK’s funding for the next four years,” said Eileen Burbidge, chair of Tech City UK (and soon chair of Tech Nation). “Under the Tech Nation banner, this country that has brought so much innovation to the world and leads in sub-sectors such as fintech, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, robotics and life sciences will build a national network of digital excellence so that the UK will continue to be recognised as one of the best places in the world to start or grow a digital tech business.”

In addition to developing new tech hubs across other large cities in the country, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is also kicking off a regional effort to improve broadband connections to businesses. Organisations in Aberdeenshire, Bristol/Bath and North East Somerset, Coventry and Warwickshire, and West Yorkshire will get vouchers worth up to £2 million to pay for gigabit-speed, fiber connectivity.

“Britain is a world leader in digital innovation with some of the brightest and best tech firms operating in this country.  Working with us, they can provide technological fixes to public sector problems, boost productivity, and get the nation working smarter as we create an economy fit for the future,” said the Chancellor.