Inequality has been a problem in Greater Manchester for a long time.
Around one in every four children in the area now live in poverty (26%), according to Government statistics - one of the highest proportions in the country. 200,000 residents are classed as digitally excluded.
The COVID-19 pandemic and national and regional lockdowns threaten to exacerbate the problem. The North West has been particularly badly hit by COVID-19, especially Bolton, Blackburn, Oldham and Salford (ranked as the 18th most deprived area in the UK). Local residents are currently living under more stringent restrictions than elsewhere in the country.
The situation risks widening inequality and heightening digital exclusion, limiting the life chances of disadvantaged socio-economic groups. The public and private sectors have a pivotal role to play in ensuring COVID-19 doesn’t lead to the divide widening and persisting.
Exacerbating the digital divide
There was already a stark digital divide across the UK and in Manchester.
1.9 million households have no access to the internet. Tens of millions are reliant on pay-as-you-go services to make phone calls, or access healthcare, education and benefits online, according to The Good Things Foundation.
The impact this could have on the future of the young and isolated is enormous. There is a hunger to upskill and learn across the country, as more than half a million people in the UK learned a new digital skill in the last three months by taking free online learning courses. This is no different in the Greater Manchester region. But if these people do not have access to the IT equipment, high-quality connectivity and software they need to improve their digital skills, they will struggle to improve their tech literacy, further education and employability prospects.
But what can local government do to address this?
The role of the public sector in tackling digital inclusion is widely recognised. This is why the Local Government Association is aiming to widen access to technology and has announced funding for councils across the UK to drive skills initiatives in the community.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority in particular is taking bold action to reduce digital inequality. Through investments and private sector partnerships, it is proving an example in delivering high-impact skills programmes for young people.
It recently took the decision to launch its Digital Blueprint – an ambitious document designed to make Greater Manchester a thriving technology hub where everyone can engage with digital technology, regardless of their socio-economic background. The GMCA’s Digital Inclusion Agenda for Change specifically commits to making Greater Manchester a 100% digitally enabled city region, where everyone can access the digital tools they need.
Closely working with schools and colleges, the GMCA is investing £150,000 in digital kit bundles which will be given to those on free school meals (FSM) as a priority to help digitally isolated young people stay in touch with their family, friends and teachers. This was the result of the Greater Manchester Technology Fund – backed by the business community - and led to 500 bundles being issued to families across the region.
Partnering with the private sector
Tackling digital exclusion doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of the public sector. Collaboration with businesses is vital to making a difference and getting people digitally engaged.
Manchester’s business community has been vital to creating social opportunity and has been playing an instrumental role in reducing inequality and digital exclusion. This is why the GMCA has invited them to be a central contributor to its current Digitober campaign, which is raising awareness of the need to address digital exclusion.
Businesses can directly participate in initiatives aimed at reducing digital exclusion. The GMCA’s Fast Track Digital Workforce Fund addresses digital skills gaps by providing local residents with accessible routes into digital employment, specifically targeting people from disadvantaged socio-economic groups through 14 separate projects. One of these was Tech Returners, giving people wanting to return to or begin a career in the tech industry exciting employment opportunities.
Connectivity providers especially can strive to improve Wi-Fi across Greater Manchester’s schools, ensuring pupils can access information at lightning speed. The Local Full Fibre Networks Programme in Greater Manchester has made this possible by connecting more than 1,500 public sites.
Lightning-fast speeds are fuelling exciting digital progress, such as the digitisation of early years assessments. This means that paper-based assessments used by the NHS and local authority in Greater Manchester to review a child’s development up to the age of 2.5 years are now digitised, allowing parents and carers to efficiently complete the process online and access records instantly and securely.
Cllr Sean Fielding leads on employment, skills and digital at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Martin McFadyen is head of public sector at Virgin Media Business