What is Social Capital?

If you have an interest in regeneration or government policy, the terms localism and devolution won’t have escaped you. These concepts have been debated at a local and national level for the past few years but policy alone cannot bring about change. Both rely upon social capital: an increasingly important factor in addressing societal challenges.

Locally in MK, we have a new council policy requiring referendums for future regeneration plans. The suggestion being that this is the ultimate test of whether you have listened to and connected with a community. But is this right? Can a simple one issue time limited vote be the ultimate measure? And whilst I wouldn’t argue that democratic accountability is important, shouldn’t we, in regeneration, be as, or more focused on the journey? On building and measuring our impact on social capital; using this as the ultimate test of our connection with the community?

So what is social capital? The basic idea is that relationships matter; that social networks are a crucial benefit to a community; that just as we need physical capital (buildings) and individual capital (skills) we need social capital, for a community to be resilient and sustainable.

At an individual level the personal social connections that people have can help them get on in life. Strong ties with others can affect behaviour and outcomes. The teenage girls I see walking to school, cloned with each other, are strongly socially connected. The child that grows up in a workless environment arguably equally so. In its civic form, social networks are an important resource for getting stuff done, with the benefits extending into society

Social capital has long since been at the heart of regeneration thinking in MK. When I joined the council and its first regeneration strategy was developed in 2009, building social capital featured heavily. I loved the term. The notion of a value that was not only measured in pounds but on its impact on people ignited a part of me that has remained alight ever since.

Social capital is often seen as the glue that holds society together. It recognises the role of communities in addressing societal challenges and that this change has driven, and justified, a shift from state to community provision of services over the last few years. Some believe this engineered approach to civic engagement doesn’t build social capital, but I think it must.

What I have learnt is that what works in one setting may not work in another. Enabling social action, and measuring its effects, requires careful design if it’s to have the best outcomes. And if people are to be encouraged to engage in local initiatives they need to look EAST! They must be Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely with shared goals that help to align organisations, groups and people together.

Places are made up of communities and communities are made up of people. The connections they have with each other, with those close to and around them, has a lasting impact on their life and the lives of those who follow them. And long after the regeneration train has left, it is those people, not the regeneration, which will have the greatest impact on the future, both their own and the places they live in. And for Milton Keynes? YourMK will take a community, socially focused approach to delivering regeneration, not because of policy, but in spite of it; not because we have to, but because it is the right thing to do.

Because in the end, while money matters in the delivery of regeneration, value cannot only be measured in pounds, but must also consider the impact we have on each other now and into the future.