Tenants and the digital divide: what is the role for landlords?

I’ve mentioned residents’ internet access before now in my blogs, usually in the context of this being a limiting factor for landlords who would like to move their satisfaction surveys online.
But this isn’t the only reason for social landlords to be interested in digital inclusion for tenants: many are themselves channel shifting services online and away from contact centres.

Those without internet access are at a disadvantage in many ways; when it comes to shopping around for the best deals, job hunting, switching energy provider or claiming Universal Credit. Confirming this is a slew of recent research, showing that not only is this a problem but that tenants are more likely to have barriers to their internet use.

Tenants are aware of this. When we compare research from the Office of National Statistics with Acuity surveys, it is notable is that tenants without internet access are less likely than the general population to say they don’t need it: 48 percent compared with 64 percent. The clear implication is that tenants who don’t have internet access are more likely than the average to be missing out for some external reason, rather than an active choice.

Our table, below, shows what some of those reasons are: lack of skills, lack of money, and disabilities are all mentioned. The difference is stark in some cases: five times as many tenants say they don’t use the internet because of a disability as the general population, for instance, and, as you’d expect, costs are far more of an issue.

Another research project, carried out in Scotland by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), suggests that even where people do have internet access, they may not be able to take advantage of its full potential because they lack the skills.

It found one in five Scottish adults didn’t have the basic digital skills they needed to use the internet, and those most in need of support from public services were amongst the most likely to fall into this category. “Ambitions to deliver more public services online, particularly welfare and benefits, risk further disenfranchising people who already face multiple forms of social exclusion,” warned the report.

A third survey, by Ofcom, gives more detail to this digital divide. Older consumers are less likely to shop around communications providers or switch, so more likely to remain on standard offers with less choice, while at the same time the price of standalone landlines has risen significantly. Under-25s are more likely to have debt problems with phone and internet providers than UK adults as a whole, also making it more likely that they are tied into expensive contracts. And one-fifth of disabled people don’t have access to the internet.

Compare all these findings with the headline that 90 percent of UK households have internet access, almost three-quarters using a smartphone and just under half a laptop or tablet, and it becomes apparent just what a disadvantage many of our tenants are suffering in many areas of their lives.

What is the answer? Discussions around the launch of the Scottish report focused on issues such as disability, employability, affordability and poverty suggested a range of radical approaches, including an element of free wi-fi or basic broadband and support. One specifically suggested: “Social housing should include broadband as a given.”

Radical? Possible? Sensible? That’s a discussion for housing providers to have. But where there’s a remit to improve the lives of tenants and ensure they’ve got the widest possible access to the services most people take for granted, then it may be a discussion to consider having sooner rather than later.

But it’s clearly not going to be an easy problem to solve: just ask landlords who tried offering the use of iPads for six months to older residents, or set up terminals in sheltered housing – and had disappointing take-up rates.

It might be worth thinking about adding more questions about internet access to your tenant satisfaction surveys if you don’t already, to establish the numbers and location of your offline residents, and to establish whether that might change if the right support can be accessed- and what form that support might need to take.

As always, we’re happy to discuss your needs and tailor surveys accordingly. There are likely to be many advantages for landlords whose tenants have the skills and equipment to access everything that the internet has to offer, whether employment, benefits, utility deals or shopping. And, perhaps, completing satisfaction surveys online?



About Denise Raine

Denise Raine is a Director of Acuity Ltd, and has specialised in tenant satisfaction and feedback research for more than 20 years.
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