Greater Manchester’s attempt to build and develop a digital city

City of Manchester

Written by Cllr Andrew Western, GMCA Lead for Digital, Work and Skills

In June 2021, I was announced as new GMCA Lead for Digital, Work and Skills and spoke in this capacity during Digital Leaders Week 2021 when I opened our event “building a digital city region”. The event focussed on Greater Manchester’s attempt to build and develop a digital city in a post pandemic society. A society with tight finances, a weary economy and uncertain employment, teamed with a frustrated population and stressed health and care system.


Doing Digital Differently

The Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint was launched in February 2020 and is putting our residents at the heart of our plans, an inclusive approach that builds on our greatest asset as we work towards our ambition to be recognised as a world leading digital city-region. Our collective priority remains our people – a people strategy viewed through a digital lens. 

Reflecting on the five priorities and two enablers in the blueprint it’s clear the focus on innovation and pace has increased and we’ve worked hard to adapt and diversify. 

The Early Years App is a great example of this – a new, first of its kind application, truly transforming the way health and education information is delivered and shared in Greater Manchester, it digitises the paper-based assessments used to review a child’s development up to the age of 2.5 years, allowing parents and carers to efficiently complete assessments online and access their records. We know some residents experience challenges when, for example, they live in one Greater Manchester locality and their health services are in another – the app is one way we’re addressing this, with data readily available across boroughs. 

It’s freeing up valuable clinical time for health visiting teams and demonstrates just one of the ways we’re ensuring that everyone in Greater Manchester, whatever their age, location or situation, can benefit from the opportunities digital brings and supports regional ambitions around school readiness, ensuring our young people have the best start in life.

You could argue digitisation of paper-based services is an obvious example but our ‘people at the heart of what we do’ approach is also true of the less “obvious” examples too. As we strive for world class digital infrastructure, we’re keeping a significant focus on the benefit to our people. 

With work due to start on the roll out of the regions Local Full Fibre Network Programme just as the UK’s first national lockdown was announced, I was encouraged to read a recent report showing significant local economic benefit to date, with £11.8m of overall local economic value in the first year of delivery. The programme has also exceeded local employment targets, with 75% of the workforce behind delivery being based in Greater Manchester.

Our partner, Virgin Media O2 Business also made several bold social value investments and helped get the Greater Manchester Technology Fund off the ground with a significant financial donation. To date, the fund has helped over 3,527 digitally excluded young people with the technology and connectivity needed to continue their learning at home while schools and colleges closed. Staff at Virgin Media O2 Business have also been using volunteer days to support people across Greater Manchester.

Digital inclusion is another a good example. Recent figures from ONS show that 176,000 Greater Manchester residents have not accessed the internet at all in the last three months. More broadly, Ofcom figures suggest as many as 1.2m Greater Manchester residents might be digitally excluded in some way.

So, in May 2021 Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham announced ambitions for Greater Manchester to become one of the first city-regions in the world to equip all under-25s, over-75s and disabled people with the skills, connectivity and technology to get online.

Ensuring residents can get online, access public services and develop their digital skills will undoubtedly drive positive social and economic change for both residents and businesses and the action network will lead targeted action to combat digital exclusion within targeted groups. The action network must be led by people with lived experience within these target groups and it’ll also work closely with the existing Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion Taskforce.

There’s no silver bullet, but in Greater Manchester we’re taking a bottom-up, collective approach, working to identify and pull the levers that have impact, then finding ways to make them scale. Levers like our procurement, our voice with government, our industry relationships with companies that have a strong social ethos. It’s intensive and is just one example but is an important lighthouse project that shows there are diverse ways of making a difference.

Find out more on Greater Manchester’s Digital Blueprint 

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