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North West’s digital divide closing slower than official targets, study reveals

Exclusive data analysis by web design and development agency Rouge Media, reveals the digital divide in the North West is closing slower than official targets but is showing signs of positive progress.

In the UK Government’s 2014 “Digital Inclusion Strategy”, the target was set to reduce the number of people offline by 25 percent every 2 years. And by the end of 2020, everyone who can be digitally capable, will be.

However, new analysis of the latest data shows between 2017 and 2019 this target was missed in the North West.

Over this period, the North West region achieved a 15.4 percent reduction in the number of residents over the age of 16 living offline – quite a way below the 25 percent target set across the UK.

It means there are still an estimated 575,000 people in the North West who have never used the internet or haven’t accessed it in the past three months, or 9.9 percent of the population.

Over recent years, there’s been a growing focus on so-called “internet non-users” as part of the debate about the digital divide and its impact on inclusion. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the digital divide like never before, as the physical world moved online.

Out of the 12 countries and regions of the UK analysed, the North West lags behind in 9th place for its progress in closing the digital divide. In 2017, the North West had 680,000 internet non-users which has since dropped to 575,000 in 2019:

Lancaster and Wyre has the largest digital divide in the region, with 16.4 percent of residents living offline in 2019. This is up from 8.4 percent in 2017. In fact, Lancaster and Wyre has the 10th largest digital divide in the whole of the UK.

Liverpool falls just behind Lancaster and Wyre as the North West’s most digitally divided placed, with 15.4 percent of its population living offline.

Whereas Manchester has the smallest digital divide in the North West, with only 6.3 percent of its residents not using the internet – an improvement from 7.8 percent in 2017. Greater Manchester lags behind the city however, but a £23 million investment in fibre optics was recently announced to improve digital connectivity in the area.

Of the 12 nations and regions studied, the digital divide in the South West of England closed by the largest amount of any UK region – an impressive 28 percent. This brings the number of internet non-users down from 477,00 people in 2017 to an estimated 342,000 people in 2019. That means 7.6 percent of the region’s population over the age of 16 does not use the internet:

Every other region in the UK underperformed when compared against the official target.

London has seen the slowest progress in closing its digital divide, with the number of internet non-users (aged 16+) only falling by 4 percent in the last two-year period. This means there’s still an estimated 482,000 Londoners who live offline.

However, London has the lowest percentage of internet non-users in the UK based on its population size. In 2019, 6.8 percent of its residents were offline.

Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of internet non-users – 13.2 percent or 194,000 people. It has also only achieved a 16.7 percent reduction in its digital divide between 2017 and 2019 – much lower than the official target.

According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), individuals with basic digital skills are able to benefit from 3-10 percent higher earnings; lower unemployment, cheaper shopping; more frequent social contact, and time-savings when accessing vital services than people with no digital skills.

As the portion of the population who were born before the internet becomes smaller and the first generation of “digital natives” reach adulthood, the digital divide will close further and at an accelerated rate.

However, enduring social and economic issues will remain, preventing people from using or benefiting from the internet fully.