West Midlands families are failing to take advantage of the internet revolution, putting at risk plans to improve the region’s skill base and attract high technology industries.
Fewer homes are going online than other parts of the country, according to the latest official figures. While the number of households with internet connections has increased, it still remains below the national average.
West Midlands Minister Liam Byrne has named as top priority plans to improve the region’s skill base but this could be threatened by the lack of internet take-up.
Mr Byrne (Birmingham Hodge Hill) wants the region to attract high-technology businesses in fields such as environmental technology and medical technology, to replace vanishing jobs in traditional “metal-bashing firms” while making the most of the region’s manufacturing traditions.
Learning and Skills Councils, the Government organisations to improve the nation’s skills base, have been ordered to treat computer skills as a “skill for life” – which means they are officially considered as important for every employee, not just technology workers, as reading and arithmetic.
According to a survey by the Office of National Statistics, 61 per cent of West Midlands homes have internet access – up from 53 per cent two years ago, But nationally, 65 per cent of the country has access. This is partly a result of high take-up in London and the wealthy South-east but the West Midlands lags behind the east of England, the South-west and Yorkshire and the Humber.
The survey suggested consumers are growing increasingly resistant to internet hype, with 34 per cent of those without a connection insisting they don’t need it – and 24 per cent saying they don’t want it.
Just 26 per cent of householders said costs were too high. Another 11 per cent said they did not have the necessary skills to use the internet.
John Lamb, of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, said the internet was vital to the region’s economic prosperity.
He said: “We all know we need to expand the region’s skills base. But making good use of the internet is an essential part of that.
“Many employers today would regard not only the ability to use the internet but the ability to receive emails and so on at home as an essential qualification for any potential member of staff.
“But I don’t think we can blame Joe Public if they are not excited by the idea of going online. It is down to the service providers and the Government to make sure Britain is leading the world.”
The West Midlands Learning and Skills Council insisted the growing take-up of the internet in the region was encouraging.
A spokesman said: “The growing number of West Midlands homes with internet access is an encouraging trend and can be taken as an indicator of progress in one of the Learning and Skills Council’s key objectives – to raise the number of adults with at least the basic level of skills and understanding to use ICT as a tool for communication.
“In the past decade, information and communication technology has changed the way we live and the ways we work and learn.
“Along with literacy and numeracy, the Government has identified ICT as a Skill for Life – a skill in which an at least basic level of proficiency is a prerequisite to fulfil one’s potential, particularly economically but also socially.”
Education plays a key role in people’s decision to have internet access in their home, the ONS figures suggest.