Archive for Articles/Speeches

Article for Herald on charity investment

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Scottish care charity Quarriers lost £1.2m last year and is desperately trying to avoid cutting services. It is asking staff to take a reduction in terms and conditions or face redundancy.

Like charities and voluntary organi-sations across Scotland, Quarriers faces increasing demand for its services, coupled with a falling income. This gives rise to questions over what we do when charities providing services traditionally run by the state run out of cash. But it also begs the question, what makes charities different from businesses like Diageo or the Royal Bank of Scotland? Why should businesses be bailed out, when charities face cutting vital services?

The history of Quarriers shows how charities have changed. Its current troubles mirror what’s happening to Scottish charities more generally. But it also demonstrates why the vitality of the charity and voluntary sector will be vital to Scotland coping with the worst impacts of the recession.

Quarriers was founded in an age of philanthropy by William Quarrier, a successful Glasgow shoe retailer, who began caring for destitute children in Glasgow in the early 1870s. It has a turnover of over £42m, making it one of Scotland’s top 200 companies. It runs an diverse range of services and its 100 projects include support for young people with housing needs, disabilities and epilepsy. Thousands of people in Scotland rely on it.

The organisation is part of a growing and diverse voluntary sector, which employs around 130,000 paid staff in Scotland and manages an annual income of £4.1bn. That’s twice as many people as are employed in agriculture and 50% more than in financial services.

However, like the rest of the economy, this sector faces massive challenges. Following the collapse in the stock market, many philanthropists have found it hard to maintain their charity work. For example, the Moffat Charitable Trust, formed around a legacy from Jim Moffat, the co-founder of travel agents AT Mays, has indicated it cannot fund any new projects, due to the fall in the value of its RBS shares. Sir Tom Hunter’s foundation has indicated it will be giving much less than anticipated in the next few years. Smaller donations have started to slide, though most Scots are still incredibly generous.

The Herald said in November, that the Big Lottery Fund Scotland will be reducing the cash coming to Scotland by 70% because of the diversion of funds to the London Olympics.

For Quarriers, and other charities, the big problem is local authority funding. This is the main source of income for its projects. Having made a loss of £1.2m last year it has had to pump £700,000 from its resources into its projects to keep them afloat.

Quarriers Chief Executive Phil Robinson argues that unless they take urgent action, things could get worse. “Local authorities are operating in a very challenging fiscal environment. As an organisation, Quarriers needs to look at ways of reducing costs in order to continue to provide the current level of service to some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland.”

Local Authorities are already working to reduced budgets. In Glasgow we have seen £286,000 of cuts for voluntary organisations providing services to the disabled, elderly or ill – including Glasgow Disability Alliance, DeafBlind Scotland and the Terrence Higgins Trust. Glasgow has also reviewed long-term funding arrangements for key voluntary sector community care organisations in a bid to save another £464,000. These cuts are on top of a £1.6m saving that the council has made by not giving a cost of living increase this year to voluntary organisations providing existing contracts. An ongoing review of purchased care home placements, many provided by voluntary organisations, aims to make a saving of £4m.

If Quarriers was an ordinary business, the response to funding cuts would be simple. It would walk away from loss-making contracts and abandon the communities that rely on it. Yet while the First Minister meets with the bosses at Diageo to convince them to stay in Kilmarnock, Quarriers is faced with raiding reserves and asking its staff to take pay cuts.

Charities have often worked on shoe-string budgets, finding innovative ways to deliver services. But if councils’ response to the funding squeeze is to pass these cuts on to local charities and voluntary groups they may destroy the capacity of these groups to deliver. In doing this, they risk destroying the social infrastructure, that maintains local communities.

Funding charities and voluntary services delivers wider benefits, like community venues, volunteering opportunities and training.

Government investments to stimulate the economy have mostly been discussed in terms of physical infrastructure projects, such as roads and hospitals. It’s time to think in terms of social infrastructure projects that build communities and strengthen society. These projects can provide the social safety net to help stop the destruction of hope and ambition.

There are signs that this approach is being recognised. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) led a delegation to a Scottish cabinet meeting, where we discussed plans for a Resilience Fund for voluntary organisations providing front line services. The UK Government has announced the creation of the Future Jobs Fund, which will fund socially beneficial jobs for unemployed young people. SCVO is organising a coalition of Scottish groups in a bid for over 5000 new jobs. The bid demonstrates how the voluntary sector is uniquely placed to deliver socially beneficial jobs, training and work experience that makes a real difference to communities We need to invest in people and build social capital. We should regard the problems faced by Quarriers as being just as concerning as any of the other economic bad news coming out of Scotland. The answer is investment and support from government, but also recognition that the voluntary sector can’t be an easy option for cuts. Charities cannot sustain long-term subsidisation of vital services.

Quarrier’s current problems may just be the tip of the iceberg. It is time to heed this wake up call, and recognise the potential of charities and voluntary organisation to support communities through the recession.

  • Mark Ballard is the Head of Campaigns and Communications for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations
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    Article for Evening News on Higher Education


    Evening News

    The news that Scotland’s universities are in danger of falling behind the rest of the world should worry everyone in Scotland. In 2000 we had one of the highest gradation rates in the world – we are now only average. Scotland risks losing the benefits of leading the world in higher education.



    Scotland’s success has been always built on the strength of our education system. We are a not a large nation and cannot compete through simply building our domestic economy. For Scotland, it has always been quality, not quantity that counts.

We are rightly proud of the role that Scots played in inventing the modern world. Television, telephones, penicillin, antiseptics, lawnmowers, microwave ovens and even computer games can all be claimed as Scots inventions. More recently it was the team at the Roslin Institute near Dalkeith who cloned Dolly the sheep. Even the headline grabbing Large Hadron Collider, recently launched in Switzerland has Scottish roots. One of the main reasons it was built was to search for the elusive ‘Higgs boson’, whose existence was first suggested by Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University.

    

But if Scotland’s Universities lose their world class status, we cannot expect to be able add to this amazing list of achievements. Last year Scotland’s University Principals calculated they needed an extra £168 million to keep pace with the revenue English and Welsh Universities were receiving from top-up fees. They got only £40 million. Unless proper support comes from the government this year the gap will grow even wider.



    So who should pay for universities? South of the border the decision has been made to ask students to cough up in the form of hefty top up fees. But greater financial demands will inevitably mean that students get only the education they can afford, rather than the education they need. Some of our best and brightest young people are already choosing not to enter higher education because the fear it will be too expensive. We cannot allow this to continue.



    Scotland has always chosen a different model of higher education to England. Edinburgh University was founded in 1582 by the town council because they believed that having a University was vital to the continued prosperity of the city.

    

Edinburgh chose not to follow the Oxford and Cambridge model. England’s two ancient universities were very much private institutions, funded privately as the apex of a gentleman’s private education. Rather, Edinburgh followed the model of the other Scottish universities and has always been a public, not a private institution. Central to this is the idea that universities should be about democratising knowledge – making it available to all. Indeed, my position as an elected Rector symbolises the idea that the University should be publicly accountable.
       

    
I believe the city fathers made a wise choice in 1582. We should ensure that everyone has the maximum opportunity to learn. We must widen access to all, including mature students and drive up the number of graduates in the population. Instead of having only average numbers in Higher Education we should be aiming for the top of those world rankings. This means Universities must be properly funded out of general taxation. Without that we risk falling even further behind and failing our most valuable assets – our young people.


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    Article for TFN on 10 years of TFN

    TFNThe world has changed dramatically for voluntary organisations over the last 10 years, but voluntary organisations have also had great successes in changing the world for the better.

    Perhaps one of the greatest changes in Scotland over the last decade has been the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Voluntary organisations played a central role in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, making the case for a different kind of parliament. Many of the innovations supported by the voluntary sector that have made the Scottish Parliament more effective at listening to people’s concerns, such as the Petitions Committee, are now being copied by other Parliaments.

    The passing of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act of 2002 is another example of a victory for the voluntary sector. Thanks to pressure from the sector, and effective lobbying of Holyrood, Scotland ended up with a significantly stronger freedom of information regime than England and Wales.

    In terms of policy changes, the ban on smoking in public places in 2006 was a major victory for a range of health charities and another example of Scotland taking a lead over England and Wales.

    Possibly the biggest voluntary sector campaign in the last 10 years was ‘Make Poverty History’, the UK element of the Global Call to Action against Poverty. A highlight was the massive demonstration in Edinburgh during the G8 Summit at Gleneagles where around a quarter of million people took to the streets to demand action on trade, aid and debt. However, the promises made at Gleneagles, partly in response to the unprecedented level of global concern, have been largely broken or watered down.

    Many of the organisations active on trade justice around Gleneagles have now come together on the need to tackle climate change. As an issue this has moved from being primarily of concern to environmental groups to having everyone from the Church of Scotland to Unison and SAMH involved. The Climate Change Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament will be a real test of whether even this very wide coalition of civil society will be enough to overcome the vested interests who oppose significant action on climate change.

    Not only have the issues we campaign on changed, but also the way we campaign has changed. Who can now imagine a campaign without at least a website and email list, if not a blog and facebook group?

    One thing is clear, even from a brief survey of voluntary organisation campaigns: the most successful campaigns are those that can build a wide coalition of groups. Third Force News remains one of the best ways to build those coalitions and to let the rest of the sector know what issues your organisation is currently working on.

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    Article for Morning Star on local authority taxation

     

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    One of the most popular policies of the SNP in the run-up to the Scottish Elections last year was their promise to scrap the Council Tax and replace it with a Local Income Tax. The SNP argued that a Local Income Tax would be fairer and based on ability to pay. At first sight this seem like a policy that should be supported by everyone on the left – after all income tax is a central part of a redistributive tax system. However, the SNP finally unveiled detailed plans for the new tax last month and some elements of their proposals have been shown to be far less progressive than might be expected.

    So what are the SNP proposing? From April 2011 Council tax would be replaced by a 3% income tax on earned income over the personal allowance (£5,435 at today’s rates). Unearned income, meaning savings and investment income, would not be covered. Those with enough wealth to avoid earning a living would pay nothing. This is because it is easy to identify where in the UK income is earned. For taxes on savings income, for example, banks only keep records of the address the account is registered to, which could be anywhere in the UK. It is therefore felt to be almost impossible to tell what part of savings income was earned in Scotland.

    The tax would pay for local services, but the Scottish government, not local councils, would set the rate. The SNP are currently ruling out as impractical the suggestion from the Liberal Democrats that councils should be allowed to vary the rate slightly. The SNP claim this would be too much of a burden for businesses. If all 32 local authorities set different rates, a business in Scotland could end up with staff on up to 32 different payroll tax rates – and many would have staff on four or five different rates.

    There is also the complicated issue of the rate at which the tax would be set. In 2006 researchers at the University of Stirling attempted to calculate what rate a Local Income Tax would have to be set at in order to raise the same amount as local authorities receive in Council Tax, including from households in receipt of Council Tax Benefit. They estimated that the tax rate would be around 6.5% if applied to earned income subject to income tax at basic and higher rates.

    Worried about the impact of an income tax increase of this size, the SNP have promised that the national rate will be set a maximum of 3%, leaving a massive gap between receipts from Council Tax and from Local Income Tax. However, the SNP have assured council leaders that any gap in council budgets would be filled by an increased grant from Holyrood to local authorities. This cash would still have to come from somewhere and the net effect of the SNP’s proposals would be to cut total tax take from households in Scotland by the equivalent of around 3.5% – a tax cut far greater than anything the Tories have promised in recent years.

    It is also worth considering where the tax burden would fall. Council Tax is based on the value of property, with only a small discount for single occupancy premises. It therefore hits hardest one or two- person households on low incomes living in valuable property – significant numbers of pensioners fall into this category. Local Income Tax takes no account of household size or property value. So instead of pensioners, it would be young workers in multiple occupancy houses who would feel the heaviest burden of the new tax.

    So for all these reason, the left should be aware that the SNP’s local tax proposals are not necessarily progressive. While some, such as low income pensioners, would benefit hugely other low-income groups would suffer. Many of the wealthiest would end up paying no local taxation, despite the value of the property they own. Local councils would also lose the ability to vary local taxes, giving central government complete control over their finances.

    Of course, none of this should be particularly surprising – while the SNP have pushed a range of socially progressive policies, from abolishing tuition fees to cutting prescription charges, their underlying philosophy is too support a low-tax economy. For example, they have suggested that if Scotland were to control corporate taxation, they would follow a similar path to Ireland, cutting corporation tax by at least 10% (from 30% at the moment).

    However, none of this should diminish the left’s criticism of the Council Tax. Ever since Michael Heseltine introduced it as a hurried replacement for the Poll Tax its flaws have been obvious. Despite a house in the top band being worth at least ten times as much as a house in the bottom band, its owners only pay three times as much. The top band is also capped at £250,000 (at 1991 prices), so the most expensive properties do not attract a proportionately higher Council Tax. Indeed, the fact that the system is still based on 1991 house prices, because there is no stomach for a revaluation, indicates the lack of any kind of detailed thought when the system was invented.

    So we need a fairer way of collecting local tax than Council Tax. The SSP set the ball rolling for a nationally-set additional income tax to pay for local services with their proposal for a Scottish Service Tax, which was taken up by the SNP as the Local Income Tax. The Liberal Democrats propose in Holyrood and Westminster a locally set additional income tax. What is less clear is what Labour will do. At Holyrood, Wendy Alexander, the labour opposition leader, seems to have decided to play the socialist card – a word she hardly uttered when a minister. They have been playing up the ‘black hole’ between the revenue collected from Council Tax and from a Local Income Tax and warning that this will lead to cuts in services. However, apart from vague talk of tinkering with the banding of the Council Tax it isn’t clear what they actually want.

    By contrast, the Greens are continuing to push proposals for a system of property tax based on the site value of land. Land is one of foundations of the ruling class in Scotland, yet, with the exception of Council Tax on property, is almost untaxed. A property tax on all land, with no artificial cap as there is with the Council Tax, would start to make the landowners pay properly for the local services they use. A system that taxed both income and property would make sure that the wealthy couldn’t evade tax by tying their wealth up in property.

    However, to win support for a properly progressive property tax, support will have to be found beyond the environmental movement, which has traditionally supported resource taxes. So despite the apparent attractions of a Local Income Tax, it is clear that all Star readers should consider the benefits of making the landlords, rather than workers, pay.  Given the fact that replacing council tax is likely to become a live issue at Westminster, as well as Holyrood, we must make sure that all proposals for new taxes have proper scrutiny from the left.

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    Report on Edinburgh University public meeting

    The JournalEdinburgh University Rector speaks in favour of free higher education

    By Neil Bennet, The Journal 26 February 2008

    Edinburgh University Rector Mark Ballard has called on the Scottish Government to improve the state of university funding, warning that prospective students could be put off studying by the cost of higher education and the sector’s poor financial outlook.

    Students at the University of Edinburgh hosted a public meeting entitled “Where next in the battle for a free, fair and funded education system?” on Thursday 21 February.

    The event featured Mr Ballard, Vice President Academic Affairs candidate Andrew Weir, and Scottish National Party MSP and member of the Scottish Parliament Education Committee, Aileen Campbell.

    Mark ballard and Aileen Campbell

    The meeting was held jointly by the Edinburgh Young Greens, the Socialist Society and Scottish Nationalist Society at the university, ahead of the final reading of a bill to scrap the Graduate Endowment, due to take place at Holyrood this week.

    Mr Ballard, who is a former Green Party MSP, spoke about fees and debt putting many young people off going to university and about the need for widening access.

    He said: “Spreading knowledge is a good thing, having an educated society is a good thing.”

    Mr Ballard also challenged the Scottish Government to match with public funding the additional money English universities will be receiving through the charging of top-up fees.

    Ms Campbell, who at 27 years old is the youngest member of the Scottish Parliament, admitted that she was still paying off her own student debts of around £15,000.

    She said: “If we were an independent country we could make [the] decisions, and be able to fund free education.”

    Mr Weir, who was speaking in his capacity as Secretary of the Socialist Society, said: “There is a discourse being created in this country, one that says that free education is a really nice idea, but that there’s just not the money to pay for it, and after all the world doesn’t owe us a living.

    “Strangely enough, the people that say this are very often members of the political party that took this country to war in Iraq, that signed up for the second generation of Trident nuclear submarines, and that have plans to bring in ID cards.”

    A demonstration by students is planned outside the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 28 February to put pressure on MSPs before the final vote on scrapping the £2,289 graduate endowment.

    The vote is expected to be close, with the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and Greens supporting the move. Labour and Conservative MSPs are expected to vote against the motion.

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    Article for Morning Star on SNP budget

    morning star logo The SNP Government in Scotland has done remarkably well since its election success. A combination of Alex Salmond’s personal charm and a well-prepared programme for its first 100 days means that many of those who were sceptical about the SNP’s ability to run a viable alternative government have been won over. However, the new government now faces its sternest test – getting a budget through parliament. Given the limited amount of extra money from the UK Treasury, and the wide ranging promises made by the SNP over the last few months, cuts will have to be made somewhere. The choices that the SNP make will reveal whether they are at heart Celtic social democrats, prepared to steer a very different course from the previous Labour/Lib Dem coalition, or merely Tartan Tories.

    The budget process also represents a huge challenge to the devolution ‘settlement’ of the last 8 years. Many of the big spending responsibilities – health, education, local government, transport and the environment – have been transferred to the control of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. The responsibility for taxation remains with the Chancellor in London. The Scottish Government is funded by a block grant from London.

    The tensions that arise from this are very obvious; especially as the UK Chancellor for the last decade has been a Scottish MP. If the Chancellor gives more money to Scotland, it is the Scottish Government that gets the political credit for the new hospitals, schools or railways that are built. If the Chancellor raises taxes in Scotland, he or she gets all the blame. It has been argued that, as the UK Government gets no political credit for spending on devolved matters, it will always try to minimise the amount it gives to Scotland. Equally, it is in the interests of Scottish Ministers always to demand more cash from the Treasury, without having to worry where it comes from. To some extent this tension has been abated by the fact that Labour was effectively in charge in both London and Edinburgh, so a Scottish Labour member of the UK Parliament (like Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling) could claim some of the credit for the actions of Labour members of the Scottish Parliament. Now, however, we have the SNP in charge in Edinburgh.

    The results were predictable. The SNP claimed that the Comprehensive Spending Review announced by Alistair Darling last week ‘squeezed and short changed Scotland’. They claimed that, because the Treasury had re-jigged the baselines for spending, Scotland would therefore receive only £135 million extra next year, compared to increases that were often worth over a billion in previous years. The UK Labour Government responded by arguing that the SNP had got their sums wrong and were looking for an excuse to scale back some of their promises. But this argument is, in many ways, irrelevant. What’s important here is not the current squabbling, but the fact that the system makes it very likely that there will be similar squabbling every year unless the party in government in Edinburgh happens to be the same as the one in control in London.

    So the current settlement cannot continue. The tension between the Treasury and Scottish Ministers is too strong. The Scottish Government will have to have greater tax raising powers. There are models the SNP can point to – the Catalan Government last year won the right from the Spanish Government to increase the share of income tax and VAT collected locally from around 35% to 50%. And, inevitably, with these tax-raising powers will come tax-varying powers.

    All of this could represent a tremendous opportunity for the left. The Scottish Government has used its limited autonomy to resist marketisation of the NHS, to avoid school league tables, not to sell off the water companies and to build new railways (while railways are being closed in England). A Scotland with greater fiscal autonomy would have greater political autonomy, and could use this to set a very different course from that followed at Westminster. However, it doesn’t follow that this different course would be necessarily less neo-liberal than the UK Labour government. These new powers could be used progressively, to improve public services and economic democracy, or they could be used to set Scotland on a desperate race to compete with low-tax economies around the world, as some in the SNP have argued.

    That is why the budget the SNP set over the next few months is so important. By showing us how the SNP use their existing powers, it will give a good indication as to how they might use wider powers.

    The SNP manifesto for the 2007 election was a very effective piece of populist propaganda. It promised something to everyone – and it helped the SNP win votes from both the Trotskyite SSP and the Tories in the Scottish election.

    But the big question they now face is how they pay for the promises, from scrapping student debt to more police on the streets, from smaller class sizes to business rate reductions for small business.

    The SNP manifesto says this will be done by streamlining government and using government spending more efficiently. As you might imagine, this greatly concerned the civil service unions, but the SNP were at pains to reassure people that there would be no compulsory redundancies. However on 2 October it was revealed that plans are being drawn up for the Scottish Government to reduce the number of civil servants it employs centrally by 14% over the next 3 years. It will simply not be possible to achieve this without a reduction in the quality of service to the public and forced job cuts.

    The SNP also made a commitment to freeze council tax levels at 2007-08 rates until their planned local income tax is put in place. Finance Minister, John Swinney, has no power to compel local authorities to do this, but he is also well aware that local authorities across Scotland are having real difficulties paying for the ‘single status’ wage agreements that will be required to ensure councils meet equal pay requirements. If he imposes a council tax freeze, without offering more central cash to make up the deficit, there will be a massive impact on jobs and services. We have already seen proposals by the SNP/Lib Dem coalition running Edinburgh Council to save money by shutting down 22 schools reversed after massive public opposition. Is Swinney prepared to force a spending freeze on local authorities whatever the cost?

    The SNP also made a manifesto commitment that, “Transport policy must be
    designed to meet the strategic needs of Scotland’s wealth creators”, which is why they are pressing ahead with road schemes like the M74 in Glasgow, a second Forth road bridge and the Aberdeen Western peripheral road. This cannot be sensibly reconciled with their commitment to 3% CO2 reductions. But by committing vast expenditure to roads, the opportunity to invest in world-class sustainable transport will be missed.

    So the SNP will be faced with a series of strategic choices – cut business rates for small and medium-sized business or increase education spending to reduce class sizes? Press ahead with massive road building plans supported by the CBI and Road Hauliers or support local authorities to avoid massive cuts in jobs and services? Reject job cuts for the central civil service or increase the number of police by 1000?

    There is already a struggle going on within the SNP over whose pet policies will have to be scrapped. The results of this struggle, which will be evident in the budget documents to be presented to the Scottish Parliament in a few weeks’ time, will tell us much about what kind of party the SNP truly is, and what impact greater fiscal powers for Scotland could have.

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    University Service 2007

    GreyfriarsAs Rector of Edinburgh University I was invited to preach the sermon at the University Service at Greyfriars Church on 23rd September 2007

    The serpent said if you eat the apple you will have knowledge, your eyes will be opened and you will know good and evil…

    And God was so angered when Adam and Eve acquired knowledge that he told them to leave paradise

    What a damning indictment of education!

    Though of course that’s not the end of the story. Because eating the apple gave humans choice – the choice between good and evil.

    And we are promised that if we choose good there will be a new kingdom, and that the creator and humanity will at last be reconciled.

    So knowledge may separate us from God. The knowledge Adam and Eve acquired from the apple made them hide from God when he came looking for them. On the other hand it is the choices we make, based on the knowledge we have, that may ultimately reconcile us with god.

    This I think is a very profound truth about knowledge. About the power and about the discomfort that comes with knowledge. It is therefore very appropriate for the University Service.

    My own area of interest is in environmental protection and nature conservation, and I find great parallels between the Biblical message of separation and reconciliation, and the message of the environmental movement.

    Our species was once at one with nature, we dwelt in harmony with, and as part of nature. But our powerful imagination and keen intelligence, in fact our thirst for knowledge, set us apart from nature. And we have used that knowledge to try to dominate creation. Our science and technology has become ever more powerful at reshaping the world.

    But it is also thanks to our advances in science and technology that we can examine what impact, for good and ill, this is having on our world. We are increasingly aware of the impact of pollution on our soil, air and sea. We can measure the rate of extinction of other species to amazing precision. And most of all we are increasingly aware that runaway climate change threatens to make our planet increasingly inhospitable for all life.

    So a familiar pattern of harmony, followed by the coming of knowledge. And now we have the choices that the serpent talked about.

    Because the knowledge we have can be used for good or evil. We can use the knowledge we have to increasingly despoil the earth, or to start to heal it.

    And this is where I am very proud of the work that is being done at Edinburgh University, and the other Universities in the city, to develop new technologies that will help us tackle environmental challenges.

    I am also proud that the university has managed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 30% since I was a student in the 1990s, and is aiming reduce them by a further 10% by 2010.

    Partly this was due to big choices by the University, to choose to invest in new technologies, such as combined heat and power generators, but partly it was also due to a series of very small personal choices, to turn the lights off, to turn thermostats down and to take the stairs not the lift.

    So where does this take us – Genesis tells the story of the separation between humans and the creator, Revelations tells the story of the reconciliation. I believe that the final chapter in the ecological story will come when we are reconciled with the rest of creation.

    That means recognising that we are not separate from the rest of creation. We are not above creation. We must go beyond the idea that nature was provided purely for our benefit. If we try to measure God’s creation merely by what it can give us, we miss the real value. The Amazon rainforest can be measured in terms of its potential as a source of new medicines, or as a giant green lung absorbing carbon dioxide, but this misses the God-given beauty of the place.

    So we must learn to value the rest of creation, and to build a new relationship, where we use our knowledge to work with the environment, not against it.

    Our choices can lead us to a new relationship with nature. A relationship that says we are once again part of nature, but this time as a conscious choice…

    And attending university is a process of opening eyes, about acquiring knowledge, and developing new understandings. The knowledge in our academic institutions will be keyto building any new relationships with nature.

    Because the University, of course is an institution that is about knowledge. But it owes it’s foundation to a notion of democratising knowledge. Not keeping knowledge in, not knowledge as a private thing, but an idea of sharing knowledge, of allowing everyone access to the choices knowledge brings.

    Knowledge that may well be uncomfortable for the individual, or even for society as a whole. Because knowledge is challenging.

    For the university community this is the start of a new year. A new year that I am sure will be filled with challenges, with new experiences and new knowledge, it will also, I am sure, be a busy year. And in that busyness time for proper reflection can disappear. My own Quaker tradition places great emphasis on silence, as a way to reflect and consider, but also as a way to open ones heart to god. In the words of the great Scottish Quaker Robert Barclay

    Each made it their work
    to return inwardly
    to the measure of grace in themselves.

    I would therefore like for us now to have a couple of minutes of silent reflection and thought, to think about the year ahead, the challenges we face and the choices we make.

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