Tanya King is Head of Customer Engagement and Inclusion at Stockport Homes Group, one of the core partners of the DigiKnow Alliance.

Imagine for a minute that one in four people you know are not online. No social media, no email, no searching for bus times, no applying for jobs, no FaceTiming. That is a daily reality for Stockport Homes’ tenants, as we know that one in four of them does not use the internet.

And within our city region of Greater Manchester, around 1.2 million residents are digitally excluded in some way. That’s a massive 41% of our GM population!

Digital poverty

We all know digital poverty co-exists with multiple other disadvantages, impacting on every aspect of people’s lives and life chances. Our region had some of the highest levels of child poverty, health and financial inequalities in the country before the pandemic.

Imagine what your experience of the pandemic would have been like without being able to order food, access the latest government guidance and health services online or communicate with friends and family living elsewhere. Within social housing, we find crippling levels of social isolation and poor mental well-being amongst the people we work with, exacerbated by this lack of digital connectivity throughout the pandemic.

I am proud that social housing providers work with the most vulnerable households to offer so much more than a bricks and mortar landlord service. We offer support with affordable furniture and food, as well as advice on employment, money and energy, but the cost-of-living crisis means that in spite of these huge efforts to engage with struggling households during the pandemic, demand for our services is soaring.

Referrals to our Money Advice Team at Stockport Homes have increased by 150% in the last 12 months. More and more of their cases are households who just don’t have enough income to meet their basic needs but who are not entitled to any further benefits. Our employment team has seen an influx of over-50s who had retired but are now unable to live on their pension alone, so are moving back into work.

GM social housing pilot

Stockport Homes have been delivering digital projects with our community partner Starting Point for many years and, more recently, as part of the Stockport-wide DigiKnow Alliance of partners, all committed to reducing exclusion. Projects include connectivity via the national databank and installing affordable wifi in blocks, a device loan and subsidy scheme and free skills training supported by local volunteers, but there is a limit to what we can do by ourselves.

In a drive to address inequalities and levelling up across the region, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has brought together five of the largest internet service providers, five social housing providers, including Stockport Homes Group and five local authorities from across the region to tackle digital exclusion in social housing settings.

The GM social housing pilot has already proved invaluable in tackling the digital divide at a regional level by linking the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. It is a genuine collaboration between five housing organisations, local authorities and internet service providers. We are looking at things differently, combining the resources and expertise of large national companies with the detailed local knowledge and relationships of housing providers to ensure the pilots deliver tangible outcomes for local people.

Together, we are demonstrating the scale and complexity of the digital divide and finding workable solutions. I started by telling you that one in four of our tenants is not online. That data is very recent, Summer 2022. As part of our role in the pilot, Stockport did a large-scale survey to really get to grips with the digital challenges facing our tenants.

Stockport Homes survey

Some clear issues emerged (thanks to Liverpool University for doing a more detailed analysis for us), which mirror many of those highlighted in the All Party Parliamentary Group on Data Poverty Report, launched in October 2022:

  • Our tenants who do not use the internet are more likely to be over 55 years of age, have a disability or health condition, and have a pension as their main income.
  • Even among those who are online, older residents and those with poor health have much more limited use and poorer skills than other households.
  • Two-thirds rely on a mobile phone as their only device, fewer than 50% have a laptop, and and 30% of households have no devices.

Digital connectivity is not a luxury, it is an essential utility without which people are excluded from whole parts of modern society nationwide. We expect people to be online, but that’s only possible for those in digital poverty if connectivity is both affordable and accessible.

The aim of this GM partnership was to deliver accessible high-speed connectivity, through increased access to social tariffs, alongside a community-based offer for those on the lowest incomes. This approach was informed by shared learning across the pilot areas, and my involvement is honestly the most satisfying and transformative partnership work I’ve ever done.

The pilot is uncovering some fantastic, progressive and innovative ways of looking at connectivity in Greater Manchester, and it is clear no one organisation alone could have achieved the outcomes of this project. We are grateful to BT, our allocated partner, for providing free wi-fi in two of our community centres for 12 months plus six months of skills funding for the Lancashire Hill neighbourhood. However, this should not just be limited to Greater Manchester.

Social tariffs need more work

The Telcos are offering social tariffs, but these need to be better promoted and more flexible to meet the needs of households with low and fluctuating incomes, for whom complex application processes are a significant barrier. In our survey, we found that:

  • Of the residents who were online, two-thirds wanted more information on a social tariff, suggesting a lack of readily available information and a large potential market.
  • A rolling month-on-month contract was the most popular option, so there needs to be a clear commitment from Telcos to this flexibility.

90% of respondents would need the tariff to be less than £15/month, whereas most social tariffs are £15 or more at the moment, so at the limits of affordability for many. Other options need to be available in recognition of the true scale of poverty experienced by some households.

It is clear there needs to be a coordinated approach from national government to address digital poverty, working with regions and using their leverage to ensure the collaborative learning recommended in the report becomes a reality. Rolling out infrastructure without the participation and insight of regional and local partners from all sectors will not alleviate digital poverty. As won’t failing to understand and meet the needs of people who are experiencing poverty in all its complexity at a local level.

If there is one thing this pilot is showing, it is that we all have a role to play in preventing digital poverty from becoming yet another barrier to people’s life chances. I believe the scaling up of this collaborative approach is essential to address the increasing digital divide.

For more information on how you can be involved in tackling the digital divide locally, please contact me at: tanya.king@stockporthomes.org, or at a regional level: GMCADigital@greatermanchester-ca.gov.uk.

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