The government’s Levelling Up white paper acknowledged the importance of digital skills and connectivity in developing the UK’s regions, but considerable challenges remain. Nearly 15 million people in the UK are deemed to have “very low” digital capabilities and 7 per cent of UK adults have no internet access.
At the New Statesman’s recent Regional Development Conference, policymakers, parliamentarians and local leaders got together to discuss the levelling-up agenda. In one round table, chaired by the New Statesman’s Jonny Ball and sponsored by Deloitte, attendees explored the various challenges and opportunities for reducing digital exclusion, as well as what role industry and policymakers can play in increasing digital skills and minimising digital exclusion.
The event was held under Chatham House Rules but a few conclusions were evident.
Firstly, round-table participants broadly welcomed the fact that digital skills featured prominently in the Levelling Up white paper because there are still too many people who are suffering exclusion as a result of “digital poverty”.
Many agreed that although this mostly affected older people, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people were also vulnerable, and that everyone needs sufficient digital capabilities to remain safe online, access services and stay connected.
One panellist pointed to the health disparities that had been highlighted by the pandemic and how increasing digital capabilities can help to reduce them. The key policy challenge, another said, was to try and “narrow those inequalities between key demographics and socio-economic groups”.
Some expressed concern about the pace at which the closing of the digital divide was occurring, with ten million people still not having “the most basic digital skills in the UK” – a number, it was noted, that was not improving. However, it was also expressed that the time and opportunity was right to up the pace. More people went online during the pandemic, and the government’s levelling-up programme is an opportunity to put this issue on the national agenda.
The panel was keen to offer solutions, and there was a consensus that in order to close the gap, those solutions must be focused on “people and not tech”. Some felt this highlighted how important the community sector was in bringing people online and upskilling them digitally, with one person stating “we need investment in that critical national social infrastructure to drive digital inclusion at scale”.
One of the panellists spoke about the importance of outreach and digital connectivity champions in encouraging excluded people to feel safe and motivated online. Another pointed to local communities as vital, as they understand the “niche” requirements of each region, including individual social mobilities, and regions working in partnership with local telecommunications companies.
Though there was an acknowledgement that, generally, young people are literate when it comes to using digital tools, it was agreed that there was still a dearth of skills around designing and building those tools. The panel said that there is a need for more robot engineers, data scientists, coders and technicians, and to show young people that digital skills are not just about teaching them “how they become the next YouTuber, but how they can build the next YouTube”.
Several people said it was important for employers to take an active role in providing their employees with digital skills, as well as for schools to provide training for young people. Others agreed, stating that employers should not expect young people to come out of education “oven-ready” with the necessary advanced digital skills. It should be seen as an iterative process, as requirements change with the evolution of technology.
In terms of the employer’s role, several panellists said it was important to ensure that training was diverse and inclusive, and that the race for talent and training was spread across regions.
There was agreement that digital inclusion was not just about skills, but also about connectivity and devices. One person explained that this is what makes digital skills fundamentally a regional development issue, and not just national government policy.
Some stressed the role of devolution and “place-based leadership” in the government’s digital skills mission and the importance of appropriate funding and local government levers. Others agreed and emphasised the need for collaboration between local and regional businesses, to ensure that “they have the skills to grow”.
Another participant spoke about the importance of infrastructure. They explained that there are now fewer than 100,000 homes that cannot get a “super-fast connection”. Though there are technical challenges associated with this, one panellist pointed out that some of the responsibility lay with housing regulations and planners. Unlike water, gas or electricity, there is a lack of incentive for planners to ensure there is sufficient connectivity on a home-by-home basis. It was also pointed out that a lack of access to the internet was often due to a lack of devices, as opposed to a lack of connectivity, as illustrated by home-schooling during the pandemic.
The panel finished the discussion concluding remarks, and each person made a commitment, or call to action, to build digital inclusion in the UK. This ranged from offering collaborative projects with each other, commitments to research or funding, or a promise to do a specific action.
Attendees at the round-table discussion included: Damian Collins MP, former chair of the DCMS committee; Julie Elliott MP, chair of the APPG on digital skills; Simon Bolton, interim CEO of NHS Digital; Clare Boden-Hatton, head of employment and skills delivery at West Midlands Combined Authority; Josh Abey, senior researcher at the Fabian Society; Cllr Richard Wearmouth, deputy leader of Northumberland County Council and clean energy and connectivity portfolio holder at North of Tyne Combined Authority; Helen Dobson, managing director at digital inclusion charity Citizens Online; Adam Micklethwaite, director of partnerships and fundraising at social change charity the Good Things Foundation; Beena Puri, digital innovation and partnerships lead at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority; Helen Burrows, content and services policy director at BT Group; Dave Tansley, vice chair and consulting technology partner at Deloitte; and Thomas Graham, management consultant at Deloitte.
The Regional Development Conference will run again in Birmingham next year.