Youth services are in a state of emergency. Here's how to fix them

Services for our young people are not a ‘nice-to-have’, they are utterly essential to their mental wellbeing and safety.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that our youth services are in a state of emergency. During my time as chair of the Youth Violence Commission - and more recently as shadow minister for Civil Society - I have met with representatives from youth organisations up and down the country and talked to dozens of young people. I knew the situation was bad, but hearing their stories really brought home the extent to which youth services have been decimated after almost a decade of Tory austerity.

Anyone who works in or with the sector will know the stats. According to the Local Government Association, local authorities in England and Wales were forced to reduce spending on youth services by £300 million between 2010-11 and 2017-18 and more than 600 youth centres have closed since 2012.

That’s not to say, of course, that there is simply a gaping hole where our youth services should be. Local authorities and third sector organisations are working together to find solutions, but we cannot get away from the fact that the results are patchy and inconsistent. Some of the young people I meet are not even aware of services being provided on their own doorsteps and others do not feel that the venues are safe.

The National Citizens Service, David Cameron’s flagship Big Society youth initiative, is currently the only programme which is consistently funded by the Government. Although it would be disingenuous to say that no young people have benefited from NCS, its ‘value for money’ has been the subject of ongoing scrutiny. 

So how are others attempting to plug the gap? One example of an organisation working closely with stakeholders to provide excellent facilities is OnSide Youth Zones. OnSide’s aim is pretty straightforward: to build a network of state-of-the-art Youth Zones up and down the country which provide safe and inspiring places for young people to go in their leisure time. Over the summer I visited their Future Youth Zone in Barking and Dagenham and I have to say that as soon as I walked through the door I could see how well young people were engaging with the activities and staff.

When setting up a new Youth Zone, OnSide works in partnership with the local community, local businesses, the local authority and – crucially – young people. I was interested to learn, for example, that young people at the Barking and Dagenham site had decided for themselves that they wanted members to be wanded for knives on the way in so that they felt safer. Funding comes via an innovative cross-sector model and donors have to commit to a minimum term to aid sustainability.

I was also struck by how many of the youth workers told me they had started off as members and progressed through training programmes to become OnSide employees. They are exactly the sort of people we need in our youth centres as they understand the wants and needs of young people in their communities. This is another area in which NCS is failing to reach its full potential: alumni should be kept onboard and encouraged to ‘pay it forward’ by working with subsequent cohorts.

With a general election looming, thoughts are turning to manifesto planning and Labour is fully committed to rebuilding our youth services, bringing together the current fragmented system and responding to the very particular challenges our young people are facing in the twenty-first century. We will achieve this by delivering a statutory funded youth service which ensures that all young people have access to high quality youth provision which matches their needs, not just those who are fortunate enough to live near centres like those provided by OnSide.

Our new legislation will clearly define a base-level of sufficiency and introduce mechanisms for holding local authorities to account for the provision in their area. We will also introduce a National Charter for Youth Work which is underpinned in law.

At last week’s spending review, Sajid Javid, the chancellor, told Parliament that he wanted to invest in youth centres and that he has tasked the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with coming up with proposals for a Youth Investment Fund. That might sound like a nice idea, but as yet we have zero clarity around what the fund is, who it is for and whether HM Treasury will commit to specific funding or the department will have to find the money from its already stretched budget.

Our young people have been failed for far too long. After almost a decade of austerity and the decimation of vital services, we owe it to them to do all we can to rebuild these vital services. They are not a ‘nice-to-have’, they are utterly essential to the mental wellbeing, safety and social education of our young people.

Vicky Foxcroft is the Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford. She will speak at a Labour Conference Fringe event hosted by Sarah Jones MP and OnSide Youth Zones. Other speakers include Diane Abbott MP and David Lammy MP.