Middlesbrough Council has launched a major drive to improve digital inclusion in the town.
Its executive has approved a new digital inclusion strategy that includes measures to provide devices to schoolchildren and people in need, build up digital skills, support businesses and strengthen connectivity.
It comes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic having highlighted how digital exclusion can undermine the quality of people’s lives and high levels of multiple deprivation in the town.
The document cites a series of figures from the Office for National Statistics, Ofcom and Lloyds Bank showing the use of technology and the internet is lower in the North-East than the national average.
“The gold standard for where we want to get to is bringing Middlesbrough in line with national digital inclusion standards,” it says.
Elements of vision
It outlines five key aims to ensure: children and families are able to access digital learning; job seekers are able to access digital skills and employment support; individuals, especially elderly people, are able to engage with others to reduce isolation; local businesses are given support to trade digitally; and there is town-wide connectivity.
These are fleshed out with an action plan that includes supporting schools in accessing and providing digital devices to all pupils, with a specific plan due to be in place by March, and embedding a digital entitlement offer to equip their families with relevant skills.
Efforts to support job seekers will involve developing a business case for a device lending library and promoting local digital businesses.
There are also plans for an ‘independence hub’ for people to learn how to use devices and software to engage with others, a ‘safety net’ scheme for basic ICT training, a Middlesbrough Digital campaign to provide advice for local businesses, and an effort to explore the wider utilisation of open data.
In addition, the council will work with network provider CityFibre on a new infrastructure and develop planning and procurement policies to influence developers to incorporate superfast broadband into new housing.
Form of poverty
Mayor of Middlesbrough Andy Preston said: "Not being connected or able to be online is a genuine form of poverty. It will be seen as akin to not having the heating on in your house.
"I'm really pleased we are focused on this. A year ago we were the only council in the country that went to every school to ask which kids were struggling to get online in an effort to ensure they had access to devices and connectivity.
"We didn't reach all those in need, but it made a real difference and remains a priority for us."
The council said that early in 2021 it was believed to be the first town or city in the country to pledge that every child would have access to an internet device to support their education, and announced it would spend £350,000 on laptops and tablets to support more than 1,000 children. Preston added this made a positive difference but was not enough to support everyone in need.
Image from iStock, Fizkes