Greater Manchester announces plans for improving digital inclusion

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester recently set out new plans to improve digital inclusion and get residents in the region online.

A Digital Inclusion Action Network has now been established to help support the Mayor’s ambitions, which include finding ways to provide all under-25s, over-75s and people that have disabilities with the technology, skills and connectivity they need to use the internet.

According to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), figures from ONS show that 176,000 residents have not accessed the internet over the last three months – with the majority of these under 25, over 75, or disabled – while Ofcom figures suggest that as many as 1.2m might be ‘digitally excluded in some way’.

To tackle this, the plan is for Greater Manchester to become ‘one of the first city-regions in the world’ to digitally equip and enable all three of those specific demographics.

It’s hoped that by giving residents the chance to easily access public services and develop their digital skills, the initiative will act as a driver for ‘positive social and economic change’ that will impact both people and businesses, and help to ‘position Greater Manchester as the key city-region for businesses seeking a digitally-skilled workforce’.

The new Digital Inclusion Action Network, which is led by people from the specified groups and who have lived experience of digital exclusion, will have a ‘delivery focused role’ and work with the Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion Taskforce, as well as enabling the Mayor to collaborate with businesses, local authorities, voluntary and charitable organisations.

Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, commented on how the pandemic has “highlighted invisible inequalities and increasing social divides”. He said: “We have all seen more of our lives move online and this risks excluding those who do not have digital connectivity. Closing the digital divide now needs to become a much higher priority. The time is coming where we need to see digital connectivity as a basic human right. Without it, people will be shut out of the conversation, lose access to essential services and miss out on a whole range of opportunities.

“This is why I am setting a new ambition to help all under-25s, over-75s and disabled people in Greater Manchester to get online. We want to create a new drive involving partners from public, private and community sectors to provide the kit, connectivity and skills that people need. The new Digital Action Network and the Digital Inclusion Taskforce will be the driving force behind this new ambition to fix the digital divide across Greater Manchester.

“Greater Manchester is the fastest-growing digital and tech hub in Europe and is increasingly seen as the UK’s leading digital city-region. Setting a new ambition of helping all under-25s online sends an important message to potential investors about our commitment to improving digital skills.”

The news follows last year’s launch of the GMCA’s Digital Inclusion Agenda for Change, which includes the goal of becoming a 100% digitally enabled city-region.

Simeon Yates, Professor of Digital Culture at the University of Liverpool, added: “It is great to be working with GMCA on their Digital Inclusion Agenda for Change.  I have been studying the impacts of digital exclusion on a whole range of citizens for over two decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic has really brought the levels and impacts of digital inequalities to light.

“Being digitally included is not just about having a connection.  Access to broadband, affordability, a lack of data, lack of skills, lack of confidence, lack of exposure to technology at work, or disabilities can all lead to people being disconnected from our digital society what has become known this year as “digital poverty”. Cutting them off from job opportunities, services and even everyday interaction with other people.

“These issues don’t just affect older adults who may not have used technology when they were younger.  Our research has identified key groups who either do not use digital technologies or only use them in limited ways. This includes a notable number of young people who lack key digital skills and education, older users and people with long term health issues. By working with under-25s, over-75s and disabled people this Greater Manchester initiative will address those most at risk of digital poverty.”

Greater Manchester has cast its net wide in trying to address the digital divide, with other work also including a three-year Digital Blueprint plan, as well as Andy Burnham’s The Greater Manchester Technology Fund, which supports young learners.

The need to tackle digital exclusion has been one of the biggest tech themes to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly within the healthcare sector. Earlier this year, a House of Lords committee and a report by The Lancet and the London School of Economics honed in on topics relating to tech inequalities, while a number of NHS trusts – such as the Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust – have platformed the need for digitally inclusive strategies.

For more content on digital inclusion, you can now watch or catch up on the write-up of our HTN Now webcast with the team from Connected Nottinghamshire, in which they discuss their Public-Facing Digital Services programme and how to address barriers to accessing digital services.