THE BLOG

Narrow Immigration Debate Threatens Depth of London's Diverse Talent Pool

09/06/2014 15:59 BST | Updated 06/08/2014 10:59 BST

It's well over 20 years since John Major, then the British Prime Minister, expressed his reverence for a country of "shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling through the morning mist".

Bucolic imagery that lies in stark contrast to the energy of modern Britain and, more especially, the dynamism of London. But, while Major's rhetoric is outmoded, recent political discourse has painted a more unpleasant picture. One in which the cricket greens are erased by rented rooms full of Romanians and the morning mist emerges from the mouths of roaming Polish builders intent on stealing our jobs.

We've been forced to listen to this antediluvian commentary, fuelled by politicians of all sides who seem more intent on aping Nigel Farage's fondness for a pint of ale in a cosy British pub than engaging in meaningful discourse. The problem with this "debate" over immigration is that it obscures what could be a broader discussion around the necessary diversity of London's talent pool. One that moves from overwhelmingly negativity towards a more balanced approach.

Admittedly, the current Prime Minister spoke last autumn about the UK, and London particularly, as a "land of opportunity" for business. Yet this proved to be a rare instance of positivity in an otherwise depressing catalogue of views that risk creating a negative aura around London.

The recent discussion surrounding the powers of the EU and calls for greater curbs on borders hasn't helped. It's drawn focus away from the success of London as a city that, in the creative industries alone, employs 700,000 people and contributes £61 billion to the economy. To encourage further growth, we need to create a climate that is attractive to people, not only those in the advertising and the creative industries but those in centres of excellence such as law, medicine, science and finance too.

It's vital that London retains its status as an overseas talent magnet. In our business, as in other sectors, we can't compete effectively by employing only Brits - we need people with direct experience of global markets, of business in China and elsewhere.

Commentators and decision-makers should focus on creating a capital that is not only cosmetically attractive but also addresses issues including transport, infrastructure, housing and schooling. Companies in London face a battle with the powerhouse of Shanghai, the creativity of Sao Paolo, and the tech and content forces that are based in New York and West Coast USA. We're operating in a global village now and competition is strong.

Yet we're facing an array of barriers that could have a negative impact on access to the best talent - not least in the shape of student visa reforms and the increased cost and bureaucracy associated with hiring international creative talent. More importantly, there's also a branding problem here: the message we're sending out as a country, and London as a city, is far too negative.

Of course, there have been positive stories in London. Not least the evolution of Shoreditch and "Silicon Roundabout" as a playground for tech and creative companies and the regeneration of King's Cross into a media hub populated by the likes of Google and The Guardian. This week's news that Vodafone is to close its Silicon Valley development lab in favour of investment in a London-based product development team also seemed a welcome vote of confidence in the capital.

There have even been occasional signs of progress from politicians. Mayor Boris Johnson's backing for the Creative Employment Programme, for instance, which encourages new apprenticeships and young people into work. Frustratingly, however, this will do little to encourage the international diversity of our talent.

I'm not arguing for open borders, for a total free for all or for the majority of the workforce to come from overseas. However, I would like to encourage a debate around talent that progresses beyond simplistic and emotional terms. Around ideas that will help to tempt the best talent by making London the most attractive place to come and work.

In discussing London, let's focus on its positives. The strength it can offer in terms of geography, we're well located to communicate with Asia and America in the same day; skillsets, we're a creative, trading nation with a can-do attitude; languages, our proximity to European and other World Markets means we're often less insular and possess a linguistic diversity more apparent than elsewhere.

As the world becomes truly global businesses need, in a practical sense, a range of people with a worldview. This requirement needs to be framed in intelligent debate that recognizes a thriving London and the diversity of talent rather than making threats to pull up the drawbridge and close ourselves off.