Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning research, University of Cambridge - Written Evidence (LOL0008)



The Digital Divide: what does the research tell us?





Dr Burgess is Director of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research (CCHPR) and Dr Holmes is a Research Associate. We are a research centre in the Department of Land Economy at the University of Cambridge. Housing and planning sit at the heart of many wider social issues. We are an academic centre but our purpose is to carry out research that is relevant for policy and practice, and our research is dedicated to understanding and tackling social and spatial inequalities. We aim to provide an evidence base for making positive change with a view to reducing inequality.


Why digital exclusion and housing?

In our view, digital exclusion is a new form of social deprivation, exacerbated by and contributing to existing lines of inequality and poverty, and as the world gets ‘smarter’, the divide gets wider. Cambridgeshire’s highest-scoring reason for deprivation is housing affordability and homelessness. In our work, we grapple with questions such as how do we prevent homelessness, and how do we improve housing security and affordability? But we are also involved in work around digital innovation, in how we develop inclusive smart cities.


For us, digital exclusion is a crucial topic that needs more attention. This is a topic we have been exploring through our work with New Horizons, a programme which offers coaching on money, work and getting online to individuals in the local area who are furthest from the labour market. Through this research, we have been interrogating the relationship between digital exclusion and other forms of deprivation.


What is digital exclusion, what is the digital divide?

The digital divide is the gap between those who have access to the latest technology and those who do not[1]. In an increasingly digital age, those who are not engaging effectively with the digital world are at risk of being left behind[2].


So much of our day to day life requires digital connectivity. This includes many jobs in today’s places of work, even in roles which previously didn’t require digital skills. The digital world is now a very important economic driver. We need digital connectivity to find information and to access goods and services, and, importantly, to connect with and communicate with others.


However, what we are seeing is an increasing divide between those who have access to information and communications technology and those who do not, giving rise to inequalities in access to opportunities, knowledge, services and goods[3].


Access to the internet is one component of digital exclusion. This tends to be shaped by having sufficient income to access the internet and buy the necessary equipment, by geography (we know that network coverage and high-speed broadband can vary greatly depending on where you live and there tends to be a rural/urban divide) and by IT literacy (knowing how to use technology).


But rather than think of a binary digital divide, it is perhaps better to think about digital inclusion and exclusion, a spectrum of digital engagement from internet access, to skills, to really being able to make use of online resources for beneficial outcomes. Indeed, even where people have the necessary skills to use online resources, access to the internet is differential, with some people restricted by their broadband speed, and others restricted by the type of device they own: using a phone to write essays or write job applications is almost inevitably less effective than using a desktop computer.

Essential Digital Skills

It is more than just having internet access. The Department for Education produced guidance in wide consultation which states that there are five categories of Essential Digital Skills for life and work[4]:


  1. Communicating - sending a message via email or online messaging service, or making comments and sharing information online
  2. Handling information and content - using a search engine to look for information, or finding a website
  3. Transacting - buying items or services from a website, or buying and installing apps on a device
  4. Problem solving - verifying sources of information online, or solving a problem with a device or digital service using online help
  5. And running through all of this, being safe and legal online


They also produced guidance on national standards for essential digital skills[5].


So what is the scale of problem and who does it affect?

Digital exclusion is not just a generational issue. Even before COVID-19, digital exclusion was a reality for a fifth of the UK’s population of all ages[6]. In 2018 8% of people in the UK (4.3 million people) were estimated to have zero basic digital skills (being unable to do any of the activities described in the five basic digital skills). A further 12% (6.4 million adults) were estimated to only have limited abilities online (missing at least one of the basic digital skills)[7]. Although there is a pattern of declining numbers of people lacking digital skills over time it is estimated that 7.9 million people will still lack digital skills in 2025[8].


Of the eight million in the UK who don't use the internet, 90% suffer from other kinds of economic or social disadvantages. They are also more likely to be in the lowest income bracket and/or be disabled with long-standing health conditions[9].


The likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, such that only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001[10].


The link between poverty and digital exclusion is clear: if you are poor, you have less chance of being online.


Digitisation and COVID

Two things have happened as the pandemic has taken hold. One is the increased pace of digitisation, and the second is increased poverty and hardship.


The pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns have shown clearly that we are not all in the same boat. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted how households that were already struggling have been pushed deeper into poverty, how health and housing inequalities make some people more vulnerable than others. Their study of the impact on low income households found that 8 in 10 respondents to the online survey reported a significant deterioration in their living standards due to a combination of falling income and rising expenditure. Families who responded in July and early August were less optimistic about their financial situation than those who responded in May or June[11]. This report really highlights the multitude of negative impacts the pandemic is having on families, particularly low income households, the findings and the testimonies within it are powerful. It really shows the shock experienced by people encountering the benefits system for the first time.


To quote from the report ‘Poverty in the pandemic: the impact of coronavirus on low-income families and children’:


Most of the families we interviewed are already living close to the poverty line. Therefore, it only takes a relatively small fall in income or rise in living costs to push them into poverty and debt. For the minority of households who were previously on relatively high earnings and are now reliant on the social security system, the income shock has been very sudden and severe. How these families cope in future will depend on how long the crisis persists.


Parents told us that their children were struggling with online learning because they could not afford the technology, or that the technology they had was broken[12].


In addition, the pandemic has hugely increased the rate of digitisation. Since the onset of social distancing in the UK, some semblance of normality – or at least of productivity – has been possible to maintain only because of the networks of digital technologies and platforms already in place. Lockdown has certainly served to highlight our reliance on virtual means of staying in touch. For some, the new norm might mean running a Zoom meeting from a makeshift home office, accessing education online or having a virtual GP appointment.


Increased working, learning and interacting online during the pandemic has widened the gap for those who lack digital skills or access. For the 22% of people in the UK who lack digital skills or access to appropriate technology[13], this increased shift towards the digital world has excluded them yet further.


For children who have been learning from home during the pandemic (either during the full lockdown introduced in March 2020, or when sent home to self-isolate), digital exclusion creates inequalities in access to education. This predominantly affects low-income families, for whom wi-fi costs may simply be too high[14]. Difficulties in obtaining enough suitable devices for children to use at home have been widely reported, and can lead to children having to share devices with siblings, meaning they each get less time to spend on their studies than peers in households which can afford to buy additional devices. While prior to the pandemic, many schools would have been able to support digitally excluded pupils with after-school clubs where they could access the internet to complete their homework, it may not be possible for digitally excluded children to access this support while at home.


Why do we need to tackle digital divide?

Why does digital exclusion matter? Internet use and digital connectivity now pervade every aspect of daily life.


The Centre for Economics and Business Research have identified five areas in which individuals who acquire basic digital skills are able to benefit[15] and from which people on the wrong side of the digital divide are excluded:


  1. Earnings benefits: these relate to increased earnings of between 3% and 10% through acquiring digital skills


  1. Employability benefits: this reflects the improved chances of finding work for someone who is unemployed, and an increased likelihood that someone who is inactive will look for work


  1. Retail transaction benefits: shopping online has been found to be 13% cheaper on average than shopping in-store


  1. Communication benefits: basic digital skills can enable people to connect and communicate with family, friends and the community 14% more frequently


  1. Time savings: these relate to the time saved by accessing government services and banking online rather than in person, estimated to be about 30 minutes per transaction.


In terms of earnings and employability benefits, the Industrial Strategy[16] identified Artificial Intelligence and Data as an important challenge and opportunity for creating good quality jobs and driving economic growth. In 2016 it was estimated that within the next 10 to 20 years, 90% of jobs will require some sort of digital skills[17] and in the Lloyds Bank research, half of those online indicated that the internet had helped them find a job[18]. This highlights that the digitally excluded will be increasingly at a disadvantage in the employment market.


New Horizons coaching programme

Coming back to housing, and to the New Horizons programme[19] is useful for illustrating some of these issues in more depth. The programme is aimed at the people who are most vulnerable to running up rent arrears, to not managing their debts, to facing the prospect of a downward spiral towards homelessness. Increasing people’s digital skills has proved crucial to getting them back on track.


New Horizons provides one-to-one coaching designed to help individuals to manage their money, get closer to the job market, and overcome digital exclusion. We’ve carried out research to understand the immediate impact of the coaching and most recently with people some time after they finished the coaching, to understand the longer-term impacts. There are a number of areas in which former New Horizons participants noted continued benefits of the coaching over a year after they finished the programme.


Most were no longer in debt, and we know that clearing debt often has a positive impact on people’s mental wellbeing.


Generally New Horizons had had a positive impact on their mental health. The mental health benefits of the coaching have been shown to be life-changing in some cases. One interviewee credited New Horizons with saving his life, as he felt that his coach had helped him to envisage a better future, and put his life back ‘on track’. To quote from an interview:


To be honest, as deep as it may sound, I don’t think I would still be here if it wasn’t for the help that I received from New Horizons. I really don’t think I would have made it this far… [It’s helped me] massive amounts. – Fergus


Improvements in their level of confidence was an area in which many former New Horizons participants saw significant benefits. For some interviewees, the programme had given them the confidence to leave their house, or to learn new skills by enrolling in courses. For some, the coaching had left them feeling confident enough to seek out volunteering opportunities or employment.


New Horizons provided participants with valuable moral support at a time in their lives when they really needed it. Some interviewees indicated that their coach helped them to feel better about themselves and their ability to make changes in their lives. Former participants often commented that they never felt judged by their New Horizons coach. They therefore felt able to ask them any questions without feeling ‘stupid’. This is a key positive feature of New Horizons, as people often described their fear of feeling judged when accessing other services.


Several former New Horizons participants had continued to use the budgeting advice given to them by their coach, and have learned to manage their money through online banking. This can help them to keep their finances in order, helping them to avoid overspending where possible. Knowing where and when expenditures are being made can also afford former New Horizons participants peace of mind, and a sense of control over their money.


Most of the former New Horizons participants interviewed for this study were able to get online and had some level of computer skills after taking part in the programme. Many now have access to wi-fi and internet-enabled devices at home. Being online had several benefits for former participants, including:



‘Polly’s’ case is indicative of the heightened importance which digital means of communication have taken on in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus lockdown and social distancing measures. For those who have access to the internet at home, digital skills can provide an essential lifeline. To quote from an interview:

The internet is a lifeline for me. Because I used to drink at the drop of a hat, and to go back to that – so I’m abstinent – to go back to that, you know, I would die. I’ve been suicidal. So putting a person that has mental health issues like myself into a disconnected state, you know, it really trips me out. So definitely, my ability to feel a certain confidence of using the computer. Yeah, I absolutely had to [learn to use the internet]. – Polly


It is well-known that digital skills are increasingly important for employability. For people who have lost their jobs, learning digital skills can be essential in order to secure another job in the sector they previously worked in. Indeed, even if somebody has extensive practical experience of a role, without digital skills, it can be difficult to re-enter the job market. To quote from an interview:


I thought at my age, do I really want to learn a computer? And then I thought, ‘actually, yeah I do.’ I don’t want a job in computers, I want to do what I’m trained to do. I’m qualified in care… I need to know basic computer skills because a lot of things now are done on computers: care plans, things like that now are all done on computers, whereas back in my day it was paper... So I need to know that I’ll be able to get into someone’s files if I need to.’ - Rachel

The research also indicated the importance of adequate housing for overcoming digital exclusion. Indeed, for people in temporary accommodation, investing in getting a broadband connection installed may not make sense when they know they may have to pay installation costs again once they move to different accommodation. A quote from an interview is illustrative of this:

There’s not really a lot one can do… The box where the phone cord goes has been cut from the bottom – not by us, it was like that when we moved in. It’s been cut, so that would end up costing me, and then I don’t want to put it in for the next person to go in. - Betty


How do we tackle the digital divide?

We need practical solutions at every spatial scale from national to very local. We need to raise awareness and understanding of the nature of digital exclusion and its consequences.


We need to work together to make sure we don’t leave the digitally excluded behind as we become a highly digitised society. We must prioritise the people and places who have, in some cases for many years, been left behind.


Some of this requires more action on the part of national government and needs national investment. The government’s ambition to level up the nation by providing next-generation fibre broadband to every home by 2025 is a great ambition, but is currently expected to be missed[20], and the UK is lagging far behind other economies on broadband penetration. Full fibre broadband coverage stands at just 14% across the country as a whole, according to the Social Market Foundation, who warned that the country has a mountain to climb to hit the target for universal coverage.


The Internet Access (Children Eligible for Free School Meals) Bill 2019-21, is a Bill to place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that all children eligible for free school meals have a broadband connection and facilities to access the internet at home. It is a Private Members' Bill and was presented to Parliament on Monday 15 June 2020. But will it be successful, how will it be operationalised, and how long will it take to reach vulnerable children?


And fast broadband alone is not enough to create digital inclusion. We need to remember that digital exclusion is a feature of poverty.


We need to put tackling poverty at the heart of our post-pandemic recovery. We should make the benefits system less punitive. Increasing benefits, particularly for families, will help to alleviate the worst stresses of poverty, giving people the ‘mental bandwidth’ to tackle learning new skills. On the 30th September 2020, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, supported by many organisations, wrote a collective letter to the Chancellor urging him to make the temporary £20 a week increase to the standard allowance of Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit permanent from April 2021, as well as extend the same uplift to ESA, Income Support and JSA. Their modelling suggests that if the uplift ends as planned in April 2021, 700,000 more people will be pulled into poverty, including 300,000 children, and 500,000 more of those already in poverty will be pushed into deep poverty (more than 50% below the poverty line)[21].


We need equal access to the internet across all geographies and social groups. If access to the internet is a universal entitlement, this means that access cannot be left to the market. National and local government must find ways to ensure that all areas have equal broadband access and that internet access is subsidised or provided free for the households who cannot afford it, and do this quickly.


We need to raise digital awareness for people who cannot afford the internet, or do not understand its benefits, or are intimidated by a digital world. We need to invest in digital upskilling. We need to remember the role that libraries, community centres, education settings, volunteers and local digital champions can play in providing digital access, and ensure this support is protected and funded. In the context of COVID-19, which has seen many of these settings closed to visitors, solutions will need to be found to help people who lack devices and broadband at home to begin to develop their digital skills.


We need to fund more programmes like New Horizons that seek to tackle the intertwined challenges of digital exclusion, money management, and the skills needed to seek and move into employment. We need to seed fund and support local area initiatives. An example is the Cambridgeshire Digital Partnership[22] which was originally formed by a number of organisations working mainly in Cambridge around digital exclusion issues which have been brought even more to the fore by lockdown, and has an aim to promote digital inclusion around Cambridgeshire and Peterborough to existing and potential stakeholders. Through the pandemic they collected, financed, refurbished and distributed hundreds of internet ready devices, coached people on how to use them, helping people to get online in a way that was meaningful to them at a time of crisis. This was all done on goodwill alone, but there is so much more to be done, and funding will be required to make real change happen. The Partnership will be fundraising amongst the local business community to support their work. Cambridge might be a growth engine city, ‘Silicon Fen’ and a cornerstone of the OxCam Arc, but we have significant deprivation and digital exclusion amongst our local community. These households cannot thrive and cannot successfully fill the service jobs that support our local economy without better digital skills and improved connectivity.


Concluding thoughts

What we need is more research and more action. As we said at the beginning, digital exclusion is a new form of social deprivation, exacerbated by existing lines of inequality and poverty, and as the world gets ‘smarter’, the divide gets wider. What does it mean to live in a Smart City if you are digitally excluded? How do you benefit from the Internet of Things if you cannot afford to access the internet?


And so, as we ‘build back better’ and build digital, we have an opportunity to take account of the unintended consequences of digitalisation and tackle it now, before it becomes an entrenched part of the already unequal social fabric of the UK.


The pandemic has already changed the way we interact: it looks set to have a lasting effect on the way we communicate. By putting improving digital skills at the heart of post-COVID recovery plans in the UK we have the opportunity to not only boost national productivity, but to improve the lives of the millions of households at risk of being left behind in a digital world. By tackling the inequality in digital capabilities, we are future proofing our national skill set and creating resilience against poverty, exclusion and the impact of future pandemics.


26 November 2020