No hope for young futures

Stonehouse Gang Youth Centre - Credit: DCMS/Stonehouse Gang

Caitlin Barr on how youth services cuts are failing young people

According to a 2023 report by the National Youth Agency, local government youth provision budgets have been cut by £1 billion since the Conservatives enacted austerity in 2010, a real terms decline of 70 per cent.

This follows research conducted in 2022 by YMCA, who found that seven local authorities had been allocated “no money” for youth services in 2020/21. The result is that youth workers are leaving the industry in their thousands, either through choice or their jobs being axed, and young people are left without spaces to socialise safely and explore complex issues with trusted adults away from a home or school setting.

Crime amongst 10-15 year olds in London rose by eight per cent between 2010 and 2019, the same period in which 24 per cent of youth centres in the city closed. Many of these incidences of crime involved drugs – when young people made vulnerable by poverty and the domestic crises it can produce feel they have nowhere to go, it makes sense that they turn to gangs offering them security and a way of earning their own money. Youth centres provide a practical solution to this, acting as both a physical space where young people can interact away from predatory gangs, and an opportunity to talk their anxieties through with trained, trusted adults who are qualified to signpost them to further support.

There is a strong correlation between increases in knife crime and closure of youth centres across the UK. In London, a rise in incidences of stabbings has been relentlessly invoked by the right in an attempt to prove that Labour mayor Sadiq Khan is failing in his role, but it’s Tory austerity which has deprived these young people and compelled them to enact violence in their own communities. Youth workers are incredibly well-placed and qualified to meet the needs of vulnerable young people, working with them to identify interpersonal issues before they reach a head. Young people who enter the criminal justice system almost always go on to reoffend on release, and are far less likely to engage with education, leaving them vulnerable to lives of severe financial instability. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle which intervention from local services can help to break – but only if they are funded.

If Labour and the Conservatives are as enthusiastic about getting knives off the streets as they say they are, they’ll fund youth services. But neither party’s policies going into the elusive 2024 election provides much encouragement that they see the cause and effect of years of cuts.

Last year, culture secretary Lucy Frazer branded cuts to youth services “necessary” for the economy. Sunak has promised £500 million in funding to youth services over the next three years, but this will only make up half of the £1 billion cut if enacted, which it hasn’t been yet. Given that a third of degree courses focused on youth work have been axed since 2008 (with only two universities actively taking on trainees), it is unclear how numbers of youth workers are to be bolstered. Youth services aren’t mentioned at all in the Conservatives’ five priorities, left out to make space for their obsession with “stopping the boats”.

Labour’s policy, while clearer, and actually in writing on their website, is uninspiring at best and patronising at worst. In 2019, Starmer declared that Tory cuts to youth services were to blame for a rise in crime amongst young people, and under the banner of the ‘Young Futures’ campaign, he has promised to open 90 ‘youth hubs’, modelled on Blair’s Sure Start initiative. However, this ten-year plan hardly scratches the surface of the 940 youth centres which have closed since 2010. And investment in young people comes with a stern warning from Rachel Reeves: “We will invest in you and help you build a better future with all the chances and choices this brings. But in return for these new opportunities, you will have a responsibility to take up the work or training that’s on offer. If you can work there will be no option of a life on benefits.” Is it any wonder that young people feel disillusioned with politics when they’re being spoken to as if they’re predisposed to laziness?

In the face of the continuing decimation of youth services in the UK, and no sense from either of the two major parties that they’re going to return them to their pre-2010 levels, where can vulnerable young people turn to for hope?

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