A key theme in the Longridge Neighbourhood Plan is digital inclusion to support our customers to have access to the range of services that are available via the internet. A key objective was to consult with our customers in Longridge and Shaw Heath to ascertain their use of digital services and any barriers that they were facing.
The key theme of digital inclusion in the neighbourhood plan is a clear reflection of our 10 year corporate ambition; ‘to have developed digital services that promote independence by giving customers access to self-service options at any time, allowing us to focus time and resources on those who need support’.
A report in 2020 by The Good Things Foundation (a not-for-profit organisation that provides affordable social housing across the North West and Yorkshire regions) titled, ‘Fix the Digital Divide’, estimates that 9 million people struggle to use the Internet independently. The Coronavirus pandemic has seen a surge in the requirement for Internet connectivity at home and has exacerbated digital inequality. At least 82% of jobs require digital skills, and in England, there is a north/south divide with 49% of people in the South East using the Internet thoroughly compared to 18% in the North East and 31% in the North West.
In the Greater Manchester area, over 700,000 people are using the Internet in a limited way, and a further 450,000 are classified as ‘non-users’. This digital divide has a wide-reaching impact on the economy and individuals. On average manual workers with high digital skills earn around £180 more a month than those in similar roles with low digital skills.
We decided to focus on Longridge and Shaw Heath because our residents are at an increased risk of digital exclusion based on their socioeconomic and geographic variables. Digital exclusion is a form of social deprivation and we propose to offer Internet connectivity to each household in the neighbourhood.
To evidence and support our strategy and corporate plan ambition, we commissioned Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) to conduct a pilot study. A survey completed by Great Places on various Internet providers has estimated the cost of investment for Internet connectivity to be £350 per household and we requested this cost to be used by AMBS when evaluating the economic return for Internet connectivity.
We also consulted our customers living in Longridge and Shaw Heath to ascertain their thoughts and accessibility of on-line services. From the 357 households contacted we received 56 responses (a 16% response rate). Three modalities of communication were used to send the survey to residents to ensure digitally included and excluded households were analysed. A direct email link was sent by email and texts to 329 households directing residents to access an online survey. Telephone interviews were attempted for the remaining 28 households which were households thought to be at an increased risk of digital exclusion with no mobile number or email address registered on our database. Analysing the 56 respondents, 48 (86%) replied through the online survey, and 8 (14%) households were surveyed by over the telephone.
The present-day value (PV) of potential economic impact per household per year estimates that for every £1 of investment at Longridge and Shaw Heath there is a potential economic impact of £12.
The analysis done by AMBS have shown that the proposed investment by Great Places in digital inclusion in the Longridge and Shaw Heath neighbourhood will benefit households both socially and economically.
In response to the report and to support the overall digital inclusion strategy in Longridge and Shaw Heath, we have installed a digital kiosk in the Welcome Café to enable our customers to access those much needed services. Support will be provided by staff and volunteers from the Welcome Café to enable customers to use the digital Kiosk during the time that the wider strategy is implemented. Great Places has also provided the Welcome Café with much needed laptops and is currently in discussion with the Department for Work and Pensions regarding additional funding through the Flexible Support Fund that could support our customers with digital training and access to work opportunities.
The kiosk will prove a lifeline to those households that have no access to internet services or are limited in their ability to use digital services. It will support our customers to access our own services whilst opening up a whole new world of online shopping, banking and an opportunity to see family and friends online.
‘We are working hard to support our customers to become more digitally active. There are huge inequalities for those customers that struggle to access the huge benefits that can be achieved from accessing online services and this has become more evident during the pandemic. I am really pleased that we have installed the kiosk at the Welcome and provided laptops that will begin to help our customers to become more self- sufficient and be able to access the on-line services that many take for granted.’