‘Can it save public money?’

Rural broadband campaign photos, some with Nick Duquemin.

Rural broadband campaign photos, some with Nick Duquemin.

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An innovative pilot scheme taking place across the county will look at the benefits of internet access for those living in social housing.

The project is a collaboration between the county council, housing associations, Northumberland College and the University of Durham.

Around 160 residents of properties managed by Homes for Northumberland, Isos, Berwick Borough Housing and Bernicia will be provided with a broadband connection for six months.

Northumberland College is involved with training people to use the internet, as the pilot is for residents who have not gone online before.

And researchers from the University of Durham will be doing an evaluation over the next six months.

Stephen Gray, programme director for iNorthumberland, the county council’s broadband project, said: “Are there benefits with being able to connect with tenants? Can tenants apply for jobs? Can they access public services? Is there a reduced costs to the public sector?

“There’s been a couple of studies in recent years, but nothing on this scale.

“It’s something that others are interested in.

“It’s a pilot project that really looks at issues to do with affordability and access to the internet.”

Through the project, 51 Isos residents now have access to the web with free broadband for six months.

Sara Parker-Clark, community involvement team leader for Isos, said: “People without internet access can miss out on opportunities that those online can benefit from.

“There is plenty of evidence to show that online households are more likely to switch to the best-value electricity provider, save money on their food shopping and find it easier to apply for jobs and access services like housing and benefits.

“We want our residents to have access to those opportunities and this project gives them a chance of that for free.”

Kevin Lowry, managing director at Homes for Northumberland, said: “By going digital, tenants can open up many new opportunities, from keeping in touch with friends and family, shopping online, applying for jobs or completing online courses. Having access to the internet is particularly important in light of welfare reform, as tenants will need to manage their money online, which is new to many people.

“The scheme not only offers tenants IT equipment, but also provides them with the training and support they need to get the most out of it.

“I am confident that this initiative will open many doors for tenants who were previously unable to access the internet and really make a difference in their lives.

“I very much look forward to seeing the results of the research gathered by the University of Durham as part of this project in the summer.”

The research side of the project is starting to get undeway now and the results of the evaluation will hopefully be published in August or September this year.

lThe iNorthumberland project is trying to bring superfast broadband to the whole county. To back the bid, visit www.inorthumberland.org.uk