Why Youth Services Matter

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Why Youth Services Matter

The pledge to make youth services statutory has been a core promise of the Liberal Democrats for a while now. Today’s political economy, however, shows no signs of transforming that aspiration into a living reality. For me, this is one of the saddest parts of our current political situation.

Statutory youth services would introduce a legal obligation on local councils to implement uniform and universal provision for young people across the country. It would be uniform in the sense of providing the same (or similar) service to all young people in a council’s locality. It would also be universal in being accessible to all young people across different geographical locations, irrespective of where they happen to be located.

At face value, then, statutory youth services seems a largely egalitarian operating principle. It would distribute funds equally between different local authorities, and it would offer the same level of service across the board – so that staff, service-users and other stakeholders know what to expect, wherever they are.

Whilst this would undoubtedly be a noble endeavour, today’s geo-political and economic landscape does not reflect it. With relentless local government rationalisation, it seems more distant than ever before. To cope with this, a market economy has been created within the third sector where organisations compete against each other to attract finite investment and resource.

With council budgets being cut year on year, the Conservative Government’s philosophy of local government rationalisation doesn’t show any signs of stopping any time soon. Indeed, if anything, this government’s ambition to further public sector commissioning – that is, the policy to reduce in-house spending by contracting charitable enterprises and organisations to run services on their behalf – looks set to become only further entrenched in years to come.

Resultantly, this has levied unprecedented strain on those within the third and voluntary sectors. Not only are they responsible for delivering what some local authorities refer to as ‘positive activities’ – designated general youth work – but are also responsible for responding to the complex needs and concerns which today’s young people are increasingly faced with.

The old paradigm of a youth centre was that it would offer general support services and a place to socialise and meet new friends. With more young people being diagnosed with mental health issues, facing the threat of homelessness, and increased pressure to do well in life, young people are reporting feeling more lonely and isolated. In turn, this fuels the need for professional youth services that offer effective emotional and social support to individuals who are confronted with points of crises in their lives.

In Kidderminster, the newly launched Youth Axis Hub has been created as a one-stop drop-in centre where young people can get friendly advice on a range of issues from housing to employment. Still in its early days, it has empowered young people to become more informed, involved, and active citizens, and has proven to be a valuable community resource. It has also attracted unprecedented support from a range of community and youth organisations alike, including Kidderminster and District Youth Trust which has been providing services for young people for just over half a century.

As an individual who has been involved with both voluntary and charitable youth organisations for over a decade now, I know only too well of the increasing strains and pressures that providers of services for young people are being confronted with. As local government budgets can only afford a fraction of operational costs, youth work practitioners face unprecedented pressures to generate additional income. Not only this, but when they do apply to grant schemes for financial donations, they are faced with the challenge of quantifying over what is very often a qualitative profession.

To illustrate, grant schemes which award financial donations on the basis of ‘impact’ often ask applicants to evidence their outcomes in ways which are numerically calculable and rely on quantitative rather than qualitative measures which shed light on a journey that the organisation has accompanied a young people on. Consequently, a rural youth organisation which has just over a few hundred members is likely to lose out at the expense of an inner-city counterpart which provides for just over a few thousand people.

Simultaneously, the significant and transformative impact that a small charity can have on a young person living in a rural setting, for example, often goes unrecognised and unacknowledged. Further, charities that offer very important services are forced to review and cutdown on what they do to meet operational costs – sometimes putting important services under the firing line.

All is not lost, however. As voluntary and charity sector practitioners pick up the work made redundant by public sector cuts, communities are reaching out to their neighbours to collaborate and protect vital community services.

We’ve seen it with libraries, we’ve seen it with care homes, and now we’re seeing it with youth centres and trusts. Right across the country, local citizens and residents are stepping forward and going the extra mile to protect vulnerable children and young people, and to provide new and exciting opportunities for young people.

This new height of localism and community empowerment is an incredibly exciting as well as an undeniably daunting one. Whilst it looks as though the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to introduce statutory youth services remains a distant idea, youth sector practitioners are collaborating more effectively in pooling resources and enhancing their offer.

Consequently, this provides both a challenge and an opportunity for government and the third sector alike. The third sector is tasked with the opportunity to embed volunteers into their outreach and inclusion on a more deeper and wider scale. Simultaneously, those competing in this year’s local and general elections are tasked with showing that they not only understand the issues facing young people and youth work today, but are genuinely motivated to support and enhance those numerous organisations feeling the struggle. We wait to see whether this opportunity is grasped in the next few weeks and months.

 

Craig Bateman.

Model Westminster Ambassador.

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