By Clifford Fleming, Lambeth Green Party
Youth work is important. It is worth stating that right up-front, as over the last 6 years hardly a word has been mentioned on what has happened to the youth sector. It is almost as if everything is the same as it has always been. Unfortunately the reality is different.
Youth groups across the country have been decimated by cuts. Youth Centres and other youth services have in many cases, like much of the provision in Barking and Dagenham, vanished. Council budget cuts nearly always swing down on youth services first – a quick, often brutally large cut, that nobody is talking about. Cuts to social services and schools cause headlines. Cuts to youth work are hardly whispered outside local papers.
Youth services are so crucial for London. Across every borough hundreds of youth workers are tirelessly working in their communities, supporting vulnerable young people and building opportunities for those who would never have them otherwise. Organisations like Young Roots in Croydon and Project DOST in Newham, supporting asylum seekers and refugees. Organisations like South Central in Lambeth and Copenhagen Youth Project in Islington, working with young people at risk of violence. Many of these grassroot groups are the fabric of our communities. They work alongside parents and carers, councils and the police, social services and schools. They offer spaces for young people to talk. To play. To learn about who they are. To build their sense of worth.
Mental health is at crisis levels with young people. Counselling services are stretched and waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are exceedingly long, often months. It is great to see that both the NHS, politicians and the wider public are taking wellbeing and mental health more seriously. But current answers are riddled with problems. An overstretched NHS is being asked to rely on community services, like youth work, yet these services are disappearing and are being cut to the bone. School teachers are being asked to step up when youth services disappear, but they are already stretched over cuts and larger class sizes.
Back in 2015, I was really pleased that the Young Greens of England and Wales chose defending youth services as a priority focus. As Co-Chair, I worked alongside the manifesto writing group to commit in the Green Party manifesto a reinvestment of the money lost over the previous 5 years. Sian Berry, Green Party London Assembly Member, recently released a report looking across London at cuts to youth services – and it is pretty shocking. She’s been working alongside the youth sector to try to amplify our voice. Across London we need to step up as Greens, talk more about this and defend services that are at risk. In Hounslow the council are proposing a cut of over £600,000 to the youth budget. Hounslow Green Party have been at the forefront of the battle to save youth centres.
If we truly seek to address inequality we have to focus on the next generation and early intervention. We need youth services to provide opportunities for young people whose families and carers have little resource to pay for expensive piano lessons and private coaching. Youth centres provide a unique environment for young people to build their social skills, their confidence and their self-esteem. In an age of increasing severity of mental health problems it is vital we step up our defence of these services.