7. Conclusions and recommendations
This report provides a positive story of social connections in Scotland and evidence that people enjoy their neighbourhoods and communities, and interact regularly with others in and across communities.
The most recent national data included in the social capital index shows a slight decrease in the overall levels of social capital since trends started to be measured in 2013 – including decreases in some of the measures of social networks, participation and empowerment. This is a small reduction but it is important to monitor trends in future years and explore the reasons for change in more detail.
There are also some findings that show areas of greater concern. One in five adults in Scotland feel lonely some, most or all of the time and this varies by both place and personal factors. There are higher levels of loneliness in younger and older people, people living in deprived areas, women, disabled people, and people who live in socially rented accommodation. The evidence in this report suggests that the economic context of areas, the provision of amenities and public services, and social inequality are all relevant factors for understanding the variation in levels of social capital.
There is a consistent picture that it is the personal ties and bonds that are the most positive aspects of communities and neighbourhoods. Alongside this evidence of strong personal connections however, people are less likely to agree that there is sufficient provision of places to meet and interact. This findings is more pronounced in some local authority areas, the urban areas outside the big cities, and in the most deprived locations.
There is a relatively low level of perceived influence on decision making and connections with power across all of the population sub-groups that were analysed for this report.
This research does not provide an explanation of the social and economic policy drivers of social capital, but it highlights a range of factors that play out differently in neighbourhood and personal settings. Other available evidence highlights the wide range of social, economic and environmental factors that lead to different levels of social connection and the need to act on the barriers such as poverty and inequality, poor housing, illness, discrimination and antisocial behaviour and provide the financial investment, public services and support for community development.
Priorities for increasing social capital
The findings suggest that the following points are important for improving social connections and social capital in communities.
1. Policymakers and practitioners in a wide range of policy settings would benefit from a better understanding of how their work affects social relationships and wellbeing in neighbourhoods and communities. Social connections are an essential element of personal, community and societal wellbeing and as shown in this report, they are influenced by a range of environmental, social and economic factors. To improve social connections, people involved in the design and delivery of public policy (for example, in the policy and practice settings mentioned in this report: social care, public transport, urban planning, community safety, housing, employment, economic planning, procurement and local democracy), need to consider not only how to achieve their own direct policy objectives, but also how to ensure that the other (possibly diffuse) consequences of their actions can create, sustain (and not damage) opportunities for social connections in communities.
2. We need to prioritise the places and groups that have the lowest levels of connections. The National Performance Framework refers to ‘all of our people’ in Scotland and outcomes depend not simply on a net gain in social capital at a national level (which could be achieved through improved social capital in already privileged groups), but on increasing social capital across all places, and subgroups of the population.
3. We need to ensure there are good quality, affordable and accessible places and spaces where people spend time, gather and meet. It is essential to create, retain and maintain the environmental and social infrastructure that supports social interactions and participation in communities – the informal public places, spaces, and facilities where people spend time, gather and meet. Evidence shows this is most important in the areas where there is a perceived lack of these places, e.g. in areas of deprivation and for disabled people.
4. People need to be involved more strongly in decisions about their communities. Levels of perceived influence over local decision making have been consistently low over recent years, and across all subgroups of the population. New and culturally deeper initiatives are required to enable people to have a greater influence over local decision making.
5. We need to base our understandings of community wellbeing on fuller and more rounded accounts than statistics alone can provide. A plural and multidimensional approach to understanding and measuring social capital, for example through multi-measurement data-dashboards, and qualitative research helps to highlight the connections and interdependencies between important economic, social, personal and historical factors. Case study stories also provide a perspective rooted in lived experience that is not available through quantitative research alone.