Have We Seen the Death of Youth Services in Southwark?

A recent Unison report has painted a bleak picture of youth services in the UK. After years of austerity measures and with Local Authorities finding it harder and harder to balance their budget sheets, statutory service provision is at an all-time low. 

Unison estimates that between April 2010 and April 2016, £387m was cut from youth spending across the UK. 

The figures make for grim reading, but how can we really articulate the damage behind them?

Well, we can turn to the report, which highlights a damning speech given my Vicky Foxcroft, MP for Lewisham and Deptford, to the House of Commons last year which gets to the point quickly: 

We are also seeing the death of youth services, which provide—or should I say provided— a vital safety net.  

Unison has reported that at least £60 million was cut from youth service budgets between 2012 and 2014, which meant that more than 2,000 youth workers have disappeared since 2010. But that is not all, because on top of this more than 350 youth centres have closed. 

What is going on? If we look at what happened from 2013 to 2014 alone, we see figures from the Department for Education showing a cut of more than £103 million from youth services.  

Children’s social care—cut; family support services—cut; adoption services—cut; youth justice teams—cut; Sure Start centres—cut; child protection services—cut; and looked-after children services—cut. The list goes on and on.  

More and more young people are falling through the gaps left by a lack of services.  

The choices that this Government are making are damaging young people’s life chances, worsening their mental health, and increasing the possibility of them getting into trouble, as they are open to abuse and potentially at risk of becoming involved in serious youth violence. 


So how have the cuts been implemented? 

Local authorities are generally wielding the axe in two ways.  Firstly, they are targeting youth centres with closures (and who can blame them when they often sit on prime real estate). As a result, they then reduce the amount of ‘open access’ services that young people can engage with all of the time, as well as taking away a safe space for people to gather and socialise. 

Secondly, they are attempting to restructure what services are on offer, as well as re-designing job roles and reducing the number or hours that front-line youth workers deliver. Essentially this is a less than straight forward way of cutting jobs and streamlining the number of staff who work as specialist youth workers. 

These swingeing measures are highlighted by the data uncovered by Unison in their report: 

  • Around 1,660 youth work jobs were lost between 2014 and 2016, following the loss of almost 2,000 posts between 2012 and 2014. The majority were part-time workers. 
  • Between 2014 and 2016, 244 youth centres were closed, on top of the 359 that were closed in the previous two years, bringing the total to over 600. 
  • Almost 98,000 youth service places for young people were cut between 2014 and 2016, in addition to the 41,000 that had gone between 2012 and 2014. 

What is the impact on young people? 

As part of Unison’s efforts to get a true picture of the state of youth services in the UK, they undertook a survey of their members who work in the field. The response, again, makes for pretty grim reading: 

If these are taken at face value then several years’ worth of cuts have clearly taken their toll. The worst statistic is saved for last though: 91% of responders stated that the cuts were having a particular impact on young people from poorer backgrounds. More than half said that there were particular issues for young black people, young LGBT people, and young women.  

The greatest damage appears to be inflicted upon the very people who need youth services the most.

So what does this mean for Southwark? 

When Southwark was attempting to hammer a series of square pegs into round holes when deciding its budget earlier this year, it was looking rather bleak for the borough’s Youth and Play services. 

After receiving a cut to funding from central government, Southwark council was forced to find £75m worth of savings over the next three years. This is despite having to find £156m worth since 2010. 

The council was proposing a 73% cut (a reduction of £2.5m) to youth services which included cutting grant funding to fifteen voluntary sector organisations. The money was originally earmarked for a range of projects including a youth sports programmes, an active citizens project, and the creation of ‘safe havens’ that offer shelter to children and young people who feel in immediate danger. 

However, a last minute amendment to the budget was tabled and councillors voted to ensure that the £500,000 pot remained for a further two years from 2017/18.  

This reversal, it must be noted, was inspired by a concerted campaign by young people, led by the Southwark Youth Council amongst others. 

Cllr Fiona Colley, Cabinet Member for Finance, Modernisation and Performance, stated that the reversal of the cuts came about as a result of the council listening to what people had to say. 

She said: “There’s no doubt that our youth service needed some major changes, both to make sure young people are getting the services they want and need, and to get the most from our squeezed resources. 

“The voluntary sector has shown us over many years of dedicated service in this area that they are best placed to deliver on both objectives, and that’s why I’m delighted to announce that we’ve found an extra £1m for grant funding for beyond 2016/17, guaranteeing support for these valued bodies for at least two more years.” 

You would think that such a strong response to the cuts could have been pre-empted… 

But perhaps Southwark should be seen as a (relative) glimmer of hope amongst the doom and gloom of the situation up and down the country.Original proposals called for the reduction of 122 full and part-time posts to be reduced to 42 part-time posts. That is the equivalent of a total of 59 full-time posts being reduced to 15.4 – or a reduction of almost two thirds.

This has played out and the majority of the restructuring has involved a streamlining of the service and the deletion of admin and management roles, yet frontline youth work is set to take a hit.

As part of the restructuring, Southwark’s Youth and Play services have been moved away from Children and Adults Services to Environment and Leisure, now falling under the umbrella of the Culture team.

Southwark Council has spent the summer consulting on what priorities the new Youth and Play Service will focus on, with over 400 people responding. A report is set to go to Cabinet in December. Whilst the borough waits with baited breath one thing can be confirmed. 

A new comissioning cycle will begin in April 2017 and last for two years. This will include the saved pot of £500,000 being available during each year for VCS organisations to apply for in order to provide specific services in Southwark. Details are currently being ironed out.

So what of the Youth Council? As a result of the move of youth and Play services the Community Engagement team at the council has taken up responsibility and are setting about working with schools and local VCS organisations to reform the current model.

When some local authorities have been forced to completely wipe out their Youth and Play provision, Southwark stands out in its commitment to maintain funding for VCS organisations.

What does the future hold? 

Cutting youth services seems, at best, short sighted. At worst it is down-right destructive. 

Whilst many local authorities are facing huge financial pressures after seeing years of budget cuts, the potential cost down the line could be much higher, as vital support is taken away from some of the most vulnerable people in society.  

It is now apparent that local authorities are increasingly finding it difficult to absorb cuts from central government and any services that they aren’t legally obliged to provide are being sacrificed on an ever-increasing basis. According to Unison, two years ago, almost half of all authorities were able to avoid closing youth clubs and cutting outreach work. Now barely any councils are able to spare their youth clubs from the axe. 

Youth centres offer a safe space for people to socialise and get away from crime and antisocial behaviour. Employment training and mentoring provides opportunities for young people who often haven’t been blessed with the privilege afforded to many in society. Sometimes all that is needed is someone who is qualified and trained to be there for people to trust or to turn to. 

Here’s a sobering thought. Unison report that in the year 2016/17 there is likely to be at least £26m more cuts in youth service spending, the loss of around 800 more jobs, more than 30 youth centres closed, and 45,000 more youth service places for young people removed. 

Unless these cuts begin to be reversed a generation of young people could be left behind. 

If you have any questions about youth services in Southwark, or would like to be informed about the the new services when information becomes available, drop us a line. engage@communitysouthwark.org

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