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Minister pledges to abolish 'digital apartheid'

Housing Minister Grant Shapps today pledged to end a ‘digital apartheid’ that has meant many social tenants in England are unable to get online…

Housing Minister Grant Shapps today pledged to end a ‘digital apartheid’ that has meant many social tenants in England are unable to get online.

Sobering estimates suggest nearly half of council and housing association tenants in England, including some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, do not have access to the internet or have never gone online. People in online households can save more than £200 a year shopping online and are 25 per cent more likely to find work, while children with internet access achieve two grades higher than those without - so it’s clear that many low income households are missing out.

Chairing the ‘Digital by Default’ summit today with UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox, the Minister said that internet access should be a necessity, not a luxury. He will also say that Government is committed to getting social housing connected so tenants can reap the benefits of digital living, from access to online shopping bargains and job-hunting; to moving home through ‘HomeSwap Direct’ to be closer to a new job, family, or to a property better suited to their needs; and more.

Ministers, landlords and social tenants’ representatives at the housing summit discussed:

  • how to drive down the cost for social tenants to get online in their homes, including possibilities for a ‘Digital Deal’ along the lines of the Green Deal
  • ensuring that social tenants have the opportunity to use the internet and see the benefits firsthand
  • encouraging providers to consider internet access as a ‘best practice’ service and to ensure that new affordable rent homes are built broadband ready
  • whether broadband could become part of the standard affordable rent package; and
  • options for providing access to the right technology to get online.

The Minister also called on social housing providers to look hard at what more they could do themselves to get their tenants online. Social landlords can save up to £340 million in communications costs alone by providing their tenants with the means to report repairs or pay rent online.

Race Online’s new Digital by Default casebook, which shows how innovative thinking and partnership working can improve the lives of both landlords and tenants, offers plenty of inspiration:

  • Sunderland City Council, which has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK, has helped get the local community online by establishing ‘electronic village halls’ across the city. Centres now exist in village halls, youth clubs, schools, health centres, libraries, pubs, and communal areas in tower blocks social housing estates. The programme has 200 community e-champions to provide face-to-face support and inspiration.
  • All 800 residents in two London Peabody estates have been given internet access in a three-year Wi-Fi pilot. At least half of the residents are now using the service - many through smartphones - and a laptop loan scheme is available for those who can’t afford one.
  • The Hyde Group has joined forces with volunteers from Eco Computer Systems who refurbish and recycle computers for local people to buy at reduced cost. Almost 200 PCs and laptops have been sold with 200 more orders on the way, saving residents around £200,000.

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said:

In a country where the majority of people can apply for a job or even just buy a loaf of bread at the click of a button, it’s no longer acceptable that so many of the most vulnerable people in our society are deprived of something most of us now take for granted in our daily lives.

I’m calling on every social landlord to look long and hard at how they can help their tenants get online, from offering networks of public internet cafes to providing the technology to log on at home.

Internet connectivity is considered by many to be the fourth essential utility, and should be a necessity, not a luxury. Government is committed to helping demolish this unacceptable digital divide that is blocking social mobility for millions of council tenants.

Notes to editors

1. Find out more about RaceOnline 2012’s Digital by Default casebook at www.raceonline2012.org.

2. ’HomeSwap Direct’ is a new national online scheme that will allow social housing tenants wanting to swap their home - to be closer to a new job, their family, or to a property better suited to their needs - to be able to see every available property in the country for the first time. All social housing landlords will have to ensure that they make properties from across the UK available to their tenants looking to swap their home, giving them the opportunity to move anywhere in the UK.

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