'Digital divide' in Luton is worst in country claims study, as thousands struggle to access IT equipment
The digital divide refers to the number of people in society who don’t have access to computers and IT equipment.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that 6.6% of Luton’s population lacked access to digital equipment in 2019, but this figure sky-rocketed to 22.2% in 2020 - the worst in the UK.
The data was compiled by web design agency Rouge Media. It suggests that Luton’s population was left particularly vulnerable from the closure of schools and libraries - with many families unable to afford laptops for home schooling.
A Rouge Media spokesman said: “As the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic began, almost one quarter of Luton’s population reported they did not use the internet at all or hadn’t used it in the past three months.
“This means many local residents were left unable to access important online services or benefit from communication apps during the first national lockdown last year.
“Given that the percentage of residents over the age of 60 in Luton is lower than the national average, the data points to other social or economic factors at play, with widening inequalities caused by the pandemic perhaps playing a role.”
Luton’s performance was followed by Dumfries & Galloway in second place reporting a 20.9% digital divide, Powys in third at 20.3% and mid Ulster in fourth at 17.8%.
Commenting on the figures, Luton South MP Rachel Hopkins said: “I am deeply concerned at the level of digital poverty in Luton and how it has increased loneliness and imposed barriers on children’s education during the pandemic.
“Over the past year, Luton Council and Luton Learning Link have done everything possible to ensure that local children can learn remotely, but urgent action needs to be taken nationally by the Conservative government to prevent children from being left behind.”
"The government failed to get a grip on this issue while schools were closed, and now it must learn from its mistakes. We need a mass roll-out of devices and internet access to children across Luton and the UK. No one should be priced out of a good education.”
In February, Luton Borough Council’s health and well-being board discussed the impact of digital poverty on children, with as many as 8,500 reported at one time to have struggled with home schooling during lockdown. The council’s director of children, education and families, Amanda Lewis, said that the number of children affected was estimated at 5,600 in December and was down to 2,500 by February.
Luton North MP Sarah Owen said: "The last year has shown us that a good internet connection is an essential part of home life as much as it is for work and school.
“We know the government talk about levelling up, but too often they’re holding Luton back on issues like this. I spent the recent lockdown dealing directly with internet companies to provide cheap, stable connections for those families that needed it to properly do home-schooling.
“I’ll be pushing the government to take urgent action to get families connected up, with the equipment they need. If they refuse, I hope the big internet firms step in and take action instead."
A Luton Borough Council spokesman said: "As is made clear in our 2040 vision of Luton being a place to thrive, the council recognises the fundamental importance of digital access and connectivity for all its residents.
"Having considered the report from the Office for National Statistics, we have a number of reservations.
"We agree with the ONS’ own observation that the detailed regional estimates for internet usage are based on smaller sample sizes than their higher level regional estimates and so should be treated with caution.
"In addition we have further concerns about interpreting the significance: the survey data straddles the period before and after the COVID outbreak in March 2020, so it is not possible to use it to indicate changes in internet usage as a result of the pandemic; also the data is limited to people aged 16+ so doesn’t take into account the thousands of school age children who have been learning remotely.
"From the outset of the pandemic, the council recognised the challenges facing many families in the town.
"The council has provided £75k to Luton Learning Link, a voluntary sector partnership, which is continuing to work directly with schools to ensure children who are clinically vulnerable or reside with someone who is clinically vulnerable have access to digital devices. This has included the distribution of an additional 5200 laptops and around 300 dongles to ensure all children have had access to remote learning.
"From Arndale House in the town centre, Luton Adult Community Learning has been doing a lot to help reduce the digital divide."
Among the measures implemented are:
> Face to face workshops to teach people how to use their smart phones to access online learning;
> Loaning laptops to learners who do not have the right equipment;
> Opening a student hub area and providing laptops and internet access to those who need to get online;
> Providing guest Wifi so visitors to Arndale House can access the internet.
The council spokesman added: "Digital inclusion is key to Luton’s future success and the council and its partners are committed to ensuring the widest possible access to the digital world for all who live and work in the town."