Group photo of a number of panellists from the Fixing the digital divide: for a digital society event, including (left to right) James Prowse - Hyperoptic, Nick Speed - BT, Professor Simeon Yates - University of Liverpool, Helen Milner - Good Things Foundation, Dana Haidan - Virgin Media,, Rachel Evans - Vodafone, Beena Puri - GMCA, Kat Dixon - Snook
Digital Digital exclusion Digital inclusion

UK’s biggest social housing digital inclusion pilot makes positive steps to tackle digital divide

Senior leaders from across the UK came together in Manchester to share and discuss the most pressing issues and challenges to fixing the digital divide for UK citizens. Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) brought together representatives from the Scottish and Welsh governments, the largest national telecommunications industry providers, social housing sector, charities, academia and local authorities in the Fix the Digital Divide: for a Digital Society Summit.

With the cost-of-living crisis exacerbating entrenched inequalities for citizens across the UK, the national regulatory body for communications, Ofcom recently announced the number of people without internet access at home had risen from last year to three million in 2023. With 11% of families across the UK turning off internet access due to affordability pressures, ‘data poverty’ is deepening at a worrying pace. Compounding this, half of people over 75 lack basic digital skills and so are unable to access healthcare, public services, or online banking.

In Greater Manchester, 1 in 5 residents live in social housing and an estimated 60% face levels of digital and social exclusion, unable to participate fully in life or education – significantly higher than the population as a whole. .

The event saw the launch of the University of Liverpool’s groundbreaking research report commissioned by GMCA on the Get Online Greater Manchester: for Social Housing Digital Inclusion pilot. The project, which began in 2022, brought together five of the UK’s largest telecommunication providers, five social housing providers and local authorities to engage with up to 5,000 residents from across the region to explore the extent and the conditions required to address the digital divide for residents in social housing settings.

The pilot galvanised a holistic package of resident support with access to digital skills sessions to build confidence and improve knowledge to complete everyday tasks online. In addition, connectivity offers from the telecommunication organisations which ranged from free connectivity, social tariff offers and connecting nearby community hubs. The ISP’s involved in the pilot, BT-EE, Vodafone, TalkTalk, Virgin Media O2 and Hyperoptic, worked closely with Greater Manchester’s social housing providers, Wythenshaw Community Housing Group, Stockport Homes, Bolton at Home, Southway Housing Trust and Wigan Council, to improve uptake of relevant services.

During the event a significant outcome of the pilot was announced - the development of a standardised property wayleave and specification agreement for Greater Manchester’s social housing stock that will speed up industry investment and reduce work for housing organisations. This agreement will also address challenges to delivering internet connectivity to homes and simplify access issues in relation to the practical and costly delivery to social housing homes.

Speakers included Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester who discussed the role of regional and central governments in tackling digital exclusion and levelling up inequalities across the UK, joined by representatives from the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Kat Dixon,, a digital inclusion advocate. A UK telecommunications industry panel, chaired by Helen Milner, Chief Executive, Good Things Foundation brought together industry representatives of the pilot programme to speak about the role of the telecommunications industry in tackling digital poverty.

The panel discussed the need for more direct Government intervention in the telecommunications market, to support the creation of conditions for sustainable long-term digital participation across all communities.

Nick Horne, Digital Inclusion Lead for Greater Manchester Housing Partnership, said: “These outcomes are nationally significant and provide the basis for a framework of good practice across the UK. Bringing together the collective experience and expertise of our housing providers, GMHP work in partnership to create lasting solutions to the housing crisis and other complex challenges facing the city region, delivering additionality and value through our collaboration.

"Now more than ever, our focus has been on getting core services right for residents, sharing good practice, and learning from each other. GMHP members are committed to reducing the inequalities that exist in the communities they serve and one aspect of this is recognising the need to reduce the digital divide between those who are online and offline. The Greater Manchester Wayleaves Agreement will help pave the way to a more effective ways of working, giving our residents the tools to fully participate in life and access all our services. Industry will be able to work closely with us to access a target market and demonstrate how commercial rollout can go hand in hand with connecting all people.” 

The pilot has also enabled discussions around the need to embed minimum digital standards for social housing within Greater Manchester’s Good Landlord’s Charter – a pioneering new initiative to drive up housing standards, recognise good practice, and support tenants.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “Everyone regardless of age, background or situation should be able to equally participate in in life, education and access health services. In today’s digital age the reality is that to do so our people need to be online and have appropriate support to get online.

"Families are struggling with “heat or eat” decisions and some of our young people not able to fully engage in education because they can’t afford to get online. With many services becoming digital only we’re at risk of our people becoming increasing isolated. We need a national plan to address digital inclusion properly and to work together on addressing the barriers - whether they are confidence, skills, access, or affordability. This pilot has offered a step change in how we can look at alternative ways of doing this, but we need to solve this for everybody."  

Find out more on Get Online Greater Manchester: for social housing residents.

Article Published: 11/10/2023 14:01 PM