If we’ve learned one thing from the past few months, it’s that, even the most difficult and uncertain times, co-operation is at the heart of our communities. At a time where it feels impossible to be physically connected, communities have proved that co-operation keeps our cities, towns and villages intact. And young people have played a huge role in this, from setting up local mutual aid groups to delivering food parcels to our most vulnerable.

However, it’s easy to forget that we can be vulnerable too. We’re not all tech-savvy zoomers with access to a laptop or a smartphone. Not all of us can afford to drive and we often rely on poorly-funded bus journeys. That’s why the Co-operative Party’s Youth Network recently met to discuss what our party can do to help young people both during and long after this Coronavirus pandemic. We heard from young members about what it means to be well-connected, how co-operatives in different sectors can help to improve our connectivity and whether the markets that are supposed to connect us actually do. The ideas we shared formed part of our policy submission to this year’s online Annual Conference.

Staying physically connected

Even in large towns and cities, getting around can be a challenge. Young members from across the country spoke of their frustration at being unable to travel to the next town over without expensive and lengthy journeys, often going into a city centre only to come back out again. In many cases, buying several tickets is required.

Starting a community bus service can be difficult as private sector bus companies often have a monopoly over ‘profitable’ routes, leaving ‘unprofitable’ routes to be subsidised by local councils, or worse, cut altogether. But partnering with a local anchor institution, such as a university, can remove some of these barriers to connecting communities which have been left behind by the private sector.

Staying virtually connected

Lockdown has taught us just how important technology is, not only for education and employment but also for human interaction. But the pandemic has also highlighted a severe digital divide. Broadband, while a central part of life for so many, is too often inaccessible, expensive or, in rural areas, completely non-existent.

During our consultation, we spoke to teachers, parents and students who had experienced this inequality. University students have been unable to access online assessments and exams and school children, many of whom already face educational disadvantage, haven’t been able to access online classrooms. In one case, a family only had internet access for one hour a day.

It’s clear that the market as a whole isn’t fit for purpose. Young people who have to move frequently due to short tenancies or unfair evictions, can end up being significantly out of pocket if they are unable to transfer 18-month broadband contracts from one property to another. Allowing smaller providers access to the market would give everyone more choice when it comes to broadband, helping to drive down prices and ensuring that this now vital utility is accessible to everyone.

But as well as making broadband easier to access, it must also be easier to use. ICT in schools has gradually been removed from the curriculum, leaving young people without the skills they need to navigate an increasingly digital workplace. Schools should take an active role in encouraging children to learn about technology and its importance, and provide accessible classes throughout the school career to facilitate this.

Changing the way we think about connectivity can be positive too. Many young people have had to teach our grandparents how to use Facetime or Zoom during this pandemic, but there have also been heartbreaking examples of older people unable to properly access the resources they need because of the prevalence of technology. Schemes could be introduced on a community-level to utilise the younger generation’s knowledge and help older people adapt to a changing world. Young people could give up an hour a week to teach digital skills – not only helping their older neighbours but also increasing their own volunteering skills, impacting their employment opportunities later in life. A scheme like this would be fundamentally co-operative – taking a skillset that is largely concentrated in the hands of one generation and working together to distribute it more fairly.

The young people we spoke to all agreed on one thing – from buses to broadband, young people in our communities are being left behind. The status quo is failing to connect us to the people and places around us, especially now when it matters most. These co-operative policy ideas will help to build a future where young people feel connected to their communities, virtually and physically, transforming our broadband and transport infrastructures into ones will empower all young people. Connectivity gives us a voice and allows us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and it’s something we must now work together to protect.