Digital exclusion is a barrier to social mobility

Large numbers of tenants at Glasgow Housing Association do not have regular access to the internet. Picture: PA
Large numbers of tenants at Glasgow Housing Association do not have regular access to the internet. Picture: PA
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We aim to get our tenants online, says Evelyn McDowall

GETTING online has never been more important.

Many of us take it for granted that we can click on the web and shop cheaply, check out the latest job sites, discover information for our studies or work, book a cut-price holiday or fill in an online form.

However, for many people in some of Glasgow’s poorest communities this simply isn’t an option.

Large numbers of tenants at Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), which is part of Wheatley Group, do not have regular access to the internet. A survey carried out last year showed 43 per cent of GHA’s 43,000 tenants were not online.

The Carnegie UK Trust’s 2013 study into internet usage within Glasgow reinforced these findings, adding that 59 per cent of Glasgow citizens were “hard-pressed”. This means they could neither afford to go on the internet and, even if they could, didn’t see the benefits of doing so. To put this in context, only 22 per cent of UK citizens are described as “hard-pressed”.

The Scottish average percentage of social housing tenants accessing the internet is 68 per cent while research by Ofcom (annual communication marketing report 2014) showed that 82 per cent of households in the UK had internet access at home.

Digital inclusion is a huge challenge and one which GHA – and the other social landlords within Wheatley Group including Cube Housing Association, Loretto Housing Association and West Lothian Housing Partnership – are determined to face head-on as part of our vision to make homes and lives better.

We want tenants to get online at a time and a place that suits them – and allow them to contact us and access our online services, including paying their rent, reporting a repair and applying for a move.

It is our goal to create as many opportunities as possible for our tenants. We believe all of our tenants should be given the chance to improve their quality of life regardless of their background, personal finances, age or sex.

We want to open the door to allow tenants to access training opportunities, jobs and further education.

Why are we doing this now? There are a number of drivers for pushing ahead with our digital strategy. The Scottish and UK governments are looking to provide more services online and the welfare reforms brought in by the UK government, including universal credit, will mean new claimants will need to be online. Health care, education, social work and local council services are also increasingly provided online.

Being online brings many benefits for our customers. It makes it easier to create a CV and search for jobs. Many of the best food, clothing, energy and travel offers are only available to internet users so it can play a big role in helping tenants make their money go further.

We’ve embarked – in partnership with the public and private sectors – on pilot projects designed to develop the technology and support services required to roll out broadband across Scotland.

BT and Power Ethernet carried out a study in Pollok, in the South Side of Glasgow, in which GHA families in three tenements tested three technical options: hardwire broadband, wifi and Ethernet over the power line.

A second pilot project, in partnership with the Scottish Government and BT, offered 138 GHA tenants in Knightswood a free tablet and wifi as part of a project to look at the connectivity options within a multi-storey block.

The benefits were clear with 48 per cent of tenants searching for employment, two-thirds creating an online CV while one-third applied for an online job. Results also showed 33 per cent of tenants told us being online saved them money with one tenant saving £300 on shopping bills.

Wheatley is also working in partnership with Glasgow Kelvin College on our Click & Connect service. The city-wide project supports 30 new or upgraded digital centres in the heart of our neighbourhoods, providing free internet access and learning support. The aim is to help more than 8,500 people over the next five years.

Free courses cater for the beginner who needs help switching on a computer to regular users who need support with online forms, creating a CV or searching job sites.

However, housing providers cannot solve digital exclusion alone. What is needed is a joint approach involving health, welfare benefits, councils and the Scottish and UK Governments.

It is now time to make the excluded included and the offline online. It’s time to get connected.

• Evelyn McDowall is digital lead at the Wheatley Group,