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June 3, 2009

Scottish Government accused of ignoring the value of social capital

It is claimed that Scotland is missing out on the potential benefits of an approach which is proven to strengthen communities and improve the impact of regeneration work.  Social capital is recognised around the world as being crucial to the task of building strong communities but to date it appears that the Scottish Government has shown little interest

The Herald

SCOTLAND is missing out on the potential benefits of an approach proven to strengthen communities and improve the impact of regeneration work, a conference will hear this week.

The Social Capital and Community Resilience conference, being held at New Lanark on Thursday, has attracted a host of international experts in the field, but Scottish policy-makers have yet to take advantage of the concept, according to organisers Assist Social Capital.

Colin Campbell, executive director of Assist, said: “It is disappointing that when social capital is seen around the world as such an important currency, the Government’s enterprising third sector plan doesn’t mention it once, and it isn’t mentioned in the community empowerment plan either.”

Social capital is the value placed on community networks and links in building stronger communities and helping individuals within them overcome challenges and setbacks.

Social theorists describe it as the social glue which helps communities cope with shocks such as natural disasters, loss of livelihoods, environmental degradation and economic hardship.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Dr Manfred Hellrigl, programme director at the Office for Future Related Issues in Austria, will discuss citizen involvement and sustainable development in communities. Other sessions will focus on how social capital can help government agencies and non-governmental and third sector organisations build sustainable communities.

Cambell said the theory was backed by a wealth of international academic research but was not so widely adopted in practice.

“We are holding this event in New Lanark, where Robert Owen pioneered free education and the co-operative movement in the nineteenth century. Despite the new millennium, I don’t think we are that much further forward.

“Where there are low levels of social capital there are direct consequences such as higher rates of crime, illness, poor health and environmental degradation.

“We are swimming in a sea of social capital all the time, but we don’t know it until we lose it.

“Social capital hit a post-war high, in terms of the sense of community, but since then it has been eroded by modern life. The pace of modern living doesn’t allow people to build those relationships. People are building relationships online but it is not the same.”

One organisation taking part in the event is Here We Are, a community network based around the parish of Cairndow in Argyll.

Founder Christina Noble set it up in 1998 after running a walking company in the Himalayas.

She had seen how local men were amazed at the interest shown by travellers in their daily lives, and the boost in confidence it gave them.

She thought there was space for a visitor centre in Scotland which would allow visitors to explore and understand the way of life of people in the West Highlands, instead of traditional stories of ghosts, castles and battles.

The Here We Are centre, which opened in 2001, operates seven days and has developed to include meeting facilities, a service point for Argyll and Bute Council and a learning centre for the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Noble, who will speak at the conference, said the plan is for the centre to become self-sustaining. “The parish includes Ardkinglas House, the first in the area to have electricity. Now we have a biomass plant for woodchips which we supply to a salmon hatchery.”

The community is also developing a micro hydropower scheme, and it’s approach is being copied in Iceland.

Thornlie Primary School in Pather, Wishaw, will also take part in the conference.

Pupils will sing at the conference and talk about a scheme which has linked them up with a school and orphanage in the country of Georgia.

Campbell said the conference would highlight the role of social capital as the missing link which makes other forms of wealth work – human, physical and financial.

Economist and social scientist Professor Herbert Simon has argued that 90% of global economic income is derived from forms of social capital, he added.

“At a time when we hear about overpopulation, inequality, environmental disasters and economic crisis, social capital is what people rely on when little else is being created,” he said.