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29 August 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 12:01pm

Crumbling Britain: The false economy of youth club closures in Haringey

“If people had a chance to come to a place like this, they could get away from their life on the streets.”  

By Anoosh Chakelian

On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon in the middle of the summer holidays, Bruce Grove Youth Centre was beginning to fill up. Located behind a grand Victorian building set back from a terraced street of food shops and off-licences in Tottenham, it is the only council-run youth club left in the north London borough of Haringey.

It echoed with the sound of a lively game of dodgeball among younger children in the gym hall, while teenagers played pool and chatted by the “Food 4 Thought” café near the club’s entrance. Around 60-90 young people, aged mainly from ten to 19, will have visited that day. And you can see why. There’s a recording studio, an expansive kitchen for cookery classes and a garden complete with home-grown courgettes too.

A third of Haringey’s population is aged below 20, with the largest number of young people living in its two poorest areas, Northumberland Park and White Hart Lane (London’s third and fifth most deprived wards respectively). Over 70 per cent of Haringey’s youth are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

This youth club is a lifeline for many of those children. One 18-year-old girl who’s been attending for six years regards the staff here as her “second family” and “would’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes” without them. When she first arrived, she wouldn’t speak to anyone, but said that now “I feel important”.

“Before this, I’d never really gone out anywhere in the holidays,” said Marlissa Garcia-Falcon, a 13-year-old who started attending this year and enjoys taking the fashion design classes and making T-shirts.

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Another newcomer, Quincy-Diamond Njelah, 14, had just baked his first red velvet cake – “which I love!” – and was going wall-climbing the next day. “I don’t think I’d be going if I never came here.”

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He added: “If people had a chance to come to a place like this, they could get away from their life on the streets and problems at home.”

Haringey is the sixth most deprived borough in London, and its council has endured a 40 per cent cut in central government funding since 2010. But this year the area has been the focus of headlines on youth violence, rather than poverty, after four people were killed in knife and gun attacks. Knife crime in Britain has increased by 16 per cent since last year (police officer numbers in England and Wales are at their lowest level since 1985) and more than 80 people are believed to have been murdered in London.

One victim was a peer mentor trainee at Bruce Grove, Tanesha Melbourne-Blake, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in April at the age of 17. The youth club is grieving; there are tears when I visit, and youth worker Akin Akintola’s T-shirt reads: “No More Silence End Gun Violence”.

“Black lives matter, and when four young people die in the London Borough of Haringey in the space of three months, that ought to command attention,” the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, told me in April, shortly after Tanesha was murdered.

His view, like those of others I met at youth services across Tottenham, is that these spaces are vital – and that closures are threatening young people’s futures.

“A lot of these cuts which were thought to be ‘easy’ back in the day – we’re now reaping some unintended consequences,” said Mark Blake, who has been a Labour councillor in Haringey for four years and was elected cabinet member for communities, safety and engagement in May.

We met at Project 2020, a youth club in a Northumberland Park estate run by Homes for Haringey (a separate body from the council). The club was established following the 2011 London riots, which began in Tottenham.

Its graffiti-stencilled walls overlook ping-pong tables, table football and a cluster of games consoles. But today, a group of 11- to 14-year-olds are debating drill music, the social media-fuelled hip-hop genre often blamed for gang violence.

One child argues that it’s entertainment rather than aggression. Another warns it could be “hard to find a job” if you’re limited to certain postcodes because of the taunting, territorial nature of some lyrics.

“I’m not going to concur with a nice political consensus on this whole agenda around youth violence within London,” Blake told me afterwards. “Austerity is playing a key role and it needs to be recognised.”

His cabinet insisted on £100,000 being devoted to youth activities over the summer, but finding the money was arduous. Haringey council reduced its youth services budget by 75 per cent in May 2011, before a further £2.1m of funding for youth services was cut in 2015/16 – when Bruce Grove faced closure.

It survived, but more than 600 youth centres have closed in Britain since 2010, with the loss of 139,000 youth places and 3,650 staff. Half of council funding for open access, frontline youth services has reduced nationwide.

The head of the National Youth Agency, Leigh Middleton, described the cuts as a “false economy”: the number of teenagers entering overburdened social care and mental health services has surged without the “early prevention” that youth clubs provide. The difference in cost to the state can be marked: £70,000 per year for a young person in social care, compared to £500-£1,000 for a youth service user.

While Middleton has no evidence of youth service closures causing crime, he warned of the impact on children’s mental health when uniquely nourishing environments such as youth clubs are “eroded”. In July, Childline reported a 14 per cent rise in the number of children contacting the charity about loneliness this year.

Confidence is fostered in these spaces, as I saw most starkly in the children darting around to pop music at Tottenham Community Sports Centre’s 30-year-old rollerskating club – under the glassy gaze of the new Spurs stadium.

“It teaches them discipline and life skills,” said Chris Witter, a 49-year-old football coach who runs these sessions and grew up in Tottenham.

Passionate about the club, he began rollerskating up and down Tottenham’s streets – “holding onto the back of the bus” – in wheels clipped onto his trainers as a young boy in the Eighties. One of his first jobs was at a local shop that made skates for West End musicals.

“I knew kids that did different stuff because they wanted money. I chose the path of straight,” he told me. “As I tell a lot of the kids: if I’d have got a criminal record when I was your age, I would not be sitting here now, doing all of this.”

Fundraising and small entry fees (£2 for rollerskating), plus £750 from the council, is all that sustains this summer holiday activity, which is run by local charity Community Action Sport.

“We try to keep [the fee] low because of the area where we’re living and the people who come here, who we’re trying to cater for,” said Witter. “[But] it’s a fighting battle to try and keep above the costs.”

With Haringey Council forced to find £15m more in savings this year, there will be many more such battles to fight.

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This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic