THE Government published its Digital Strategy last week with the worthy aim of making Britain the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business.
It was fantastic to see Leeds used as a case study in this report, because as it stated “the digital revolution is not limited to one place or idea – it is penetrating the length and breadth of the UK”.
Getting Leeds on the Government’s digital radar is a fantastic result and testament to the hard work and focus that the council, the LEP, and many digital and technology businesses from across the city region have put into showcasing just what a great place Leeds is for our sector and for people looking to build a digital career.
As well as recognition for Leeds, there was much else to welcome in the strategy. Measures to upgrade our national digital infrastructure were long overdue, as was the restatement of support for a significant increase in investment in R&D funding.
But it was the section on digital skills that I thought was the most interesting.
Businesses in Leeds cited a lack of digital skills in last year’s Tech City report as the single biggest barrier to their growth. And as the CEO of a company that has doubled its headcount in the last 12 months, I know full well how hard you have to work to attract and retain top tech talent to our region.
So I fully support the strategy’s ambition to ensure that “everyone has the skills they need to flourish in a digitally-driven economy”. And the partnerships and programmes launched by Lloyds, Barclays, BT Accenture, Google and others to help deliver it are very welcome.
At Sky Betting & Gaming, we are more than willing to play our part in this type of collaboration. We have already invested £3.5m into graduate training programmes because we found people coming straight out of universities were not work-ready.
We have worked in partnership with our LEP to highlight the many tech careers available to young people in the city. And many of our employees help out in their local code clubs.
This year we are looking to do even more. At the Leeds Digital Festival in April, we will run five pilot Coding for Beginners sessions to help retrain those who want to make sure they have relevant digital skills. And our Software Academy, that takes recent graduates through a 14 week boot camp and then places them in our various tech teams for the rest of the year, is currently open for its second cohort of applicants.
More significantly, we are also looking at how we could extend these two programmes to help upskill people from across Yorkshire. I would love to open up parts of our Software Academy to give hundreds of people the opportunity to learn coding basics and the fundamental principles of operating in a lean and agile business. A version of this programme that ran for four weeks and was open to those looking to retrain as well as graduates would help create a pool of talent in the region that would benefit the whole sector.
But as important as the Government’s Digital Strategy was in championing and encouraging this sort of partnership approach it is another Government set-piece event that will influence whether we are able to do as much in this area as we would like. The Budget tomorrow is an opportunity for the Government to back up their digital ambitions. They recognise in the Digital Strategy that “an effective tax structure” is crucial to creating the conditions that will allow tech businesses to grow. They must now deliver on this and recognise that all taxes, not just corporation tax and R&D credits, play their part in this ambition.
Unlike many international tech companies, we are happy to be headquartered in the UK and pay significant amounts of tax. Over the next three years, we will pay £500m in gambling, corporation, VAT, and other taxes. Much more than many international tech companies.Our budgets, business plans and planned investment in jobs and skills have this level of taxation baked into them. But it is important that the Government realises that much of their good work in fostering a regionally- balanced UK tech sector could be undone with even minor changes to the gambling tax regime.
Given that, as a sector, we are already facing an increase in £150m in gaming duty and a £30m-40m increase in statutory payments we make to horse racing in the next 12 months, a period of stability is vital.
If online gambling taxes are maintained at their current rates tomorrow, then we will be able to continue investing in jobs and skills training across Yorkshire.
In fact, we would be energised and incentivised to do even more. In doing so, we would help the Government deliver on its digital ambitions and play our part in creating a Yorkshire tech sector that would be at the heart of the region’s economy for years to come.
Richard Flint is managing director of Sky Betting & Gaming.