Youth Services cuts: The rhetoric and the reality

Austerity over? – Neo-liberalism under scrutiny

The event which arguably most shaped governments’ economic and social policy-making in the second decade of the 21st century was the near-collapse in 2007-08 of the world’s banking system – often described more abstractly, if evasively, as ‘the global financial crisis’.[1] Though the roots of this lay in the dominance over the previous three decades of neo-liberal thinking and assumptions, in the UK at least these and their often damaging consequences only began to attract a more critical public debate after the 2016 EU referendum delivered the ‘wrong’ result. Scrutiny here focused particularly on how, far from prompting the promised ‘trickle down’ of wealth through society, neo-liberalism’s highly individualistic, competitive and market-driven priorities had deepened economic inequality and exacerbated social exclusion, in the process providing a breeding ground for often extreme forms of anti-democratic ‘populisms’.[2]

Evidence from a range of sources revealed, for example, that by early 2019 the equivalent income of the richest one percent of the population was seven times the average; that in the UK one child in three was living in poverty; and that by 2021 that figure would be nearer fifty per cent.[3] The ‘freedoms’ of neo-liberalism had also contributed significantly to a climate change crisis on which young people, increasingly and in increasingly organised and activist ways, were voicing their concerns.

Nor was it just the usual left-wing suspects who were putting out these messages. One early, at least partial and rhetorical, convert to them was the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney. In December 2016 for example he noted that

… many citizens in advanced economies are facing heightened uncertainty … and losing trust in the system… Rather than a new golden age, globalisation is associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities’.[4]

By early January 2019 Christine Lagarde, speaking as the head of the International Monetary Fund, was also advocating some very non-neo-liberal solutions:

There are more members concerned about inequality – which is excessive in many areas of the world – and how to remedy it… We have surveyed all the mission chiefs and asked them whether social spending was likely to be macro critical and were happily surprised that 80% said it was’.[5]

By then, as part of her prime ministerial commitment to work for ‘a country that works for everyone’[6], Theresa May had felt the need to assure her party’s 2018 annual conference that ‘a decade after the financial crash … the austerity it led to is over…’[7] As, nine months later she was forced out of office, she sought to bolster her political legacy by urging her party to commit to ‘welfarist’ policies such as reinvesting in further education and restoring grants for some higher education students.[8]

The depth and reach of this rethinking was however limited, particularly within those elite groups which continued to control most of the policy making processes. In anticipation of the damage Brexit could do to the British economy, for example, at the same party conference at which May had claimed austerity was ending her Chancellor made it clear that he was far from committed to making this happen.[9] The same report that encouraged May to re-embrace student grants also recommended that government support of university courses should take account not just of their cost but also of their economic and social value.[10] More broadly, the ‘pitch’ of some of the candidates in the Conservative Party’s leadership election in June and July 2019 included proposals to reduce taxation, in one case specifically for higher earners; cut corporation tax (28 per cent in 2010) to 12.5 per cent; and abolish university tuition fees for graduates who subsequently became ‘entrepreneurs’.[11]

Given their long reign, neo-liberal ideas were clearly going to be very hard to uproot from the political (and indeed public) mind-set and from the wider political and economic culture.

The ‘lost youth services’ – the rhetoric…  

Nonetheless, this somewhat more open post-Referendum environment did create space for some public agonising about the ‘lost youth services’ of the previous ten years and the resultant gaps in many young people’s out-of-school lives. One high profile All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Youth Affairs, explicitly focused on ‘The Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work’, concluded for example that, even though they could be ‘transformational’, open access … youth services have all but disappeared’.[12] A month later a second APPG report, while largely ignoring evidence that many of the causes of knife crime might lie in the structural conditions which neo-liberalism had helped create[13], directly linked its rise in Wolverhampton, Westminster, Cambridgeshire and Wokingham to those councils’ up to 91 per cent cuts to their Youth Service budgets.[14]

Often the rationale for reinstating Youth Services was a need to tackle other ‘youth problems’ as well as knife crime – young people’s growing mental health pressures; ‘employment, training and education issues’; reduced ‘healthy’ summer holiday activity programmes.[15] Nonetheless, government and Labour Party policy statements as well as some media reports and newspaper articles did begin to point, sometimes in detail, to the loss of hundreds of youth work jobs and buildings across the country and to the need for youth work to be reinstated at least as a ‘preventative’ intervention.[16] 

… the continuing realities …

Occasionally an example of rhetoric being turned into action did emerge. After cutting its Youth Service expenditure from £2.1 million in 2011-12 to £400,000 in 2017-18, Newham Council announced in June 2019 that – in its own neo-liberal terms – it was ‘committed to investing in our young people’. It thus planned, as a first stage, to extend its ‘universal youth offer’ by increasing from 12 to 20 per cent the proportion of 9-19 year olds accessing the Service. An extra £1.4 million was to be provided to increase the number of sessions at its four youth hubs, open four more hubs, appoint a detached youth team and create a range of roles for ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ youth workers. The proposals also aimed to ensure that SEND, looked-after and LGBTQ young people and young carers had enhanced access.[17]  

Much of the bottom-up evidence, however, suggested that material change of this kind was likely to be rare – and was going to be very hard to achieve. Two days before May’s 2018 Conference speech, the Local Government Association (LGA) had highlighted that, with the Treasury cut to their Revenue Support Grant already estimated at 60p in every £1, half of local authorities (168) were assuming that the Grant would have disappeared completely within two years. As a result, the LGA predicted that in the financial year 2019-20 funding for council services overall would reduce by a further 36 per cent (£1.3 billion).[18] By then, too, austerity measures already in place were predicted to bring cumulative cuts to social welfare progammes exceeding some £27 billion – that is, the equivalent of some £800 a year for every working-age person in the country.[19] 

In order to help find resources to keep public services running between 2014-15 and 2018-19 local authorities generated some £9.1 billion of income by selling off more than 12,000 ‘public spaces’ – including no doubt, as well as school playing fields[20], some of the 760 youth centres closed since 2012[21]. Even so, throughout this period ‘children and youth services’ remained under severe, growing and sometimes contradictory pressures. DfE figures released in the same month that May made her conference speech revealed, for example, that in 2018-19 local authorities were expecting to increase spending on children in care by £370 million to a total of £4.16 billion; while at the same time – presumably to help fill this gap – reducing their ‘youth service’ spending by £31.4 million[22].

Other reports published towards the end of 2018 and in the first half of 2019 added to this evidence:

  • A September 2018 County Councils Network (CCN) report indicated that in 2019-20 of the 36 authorities surveyed were budgeting to cut their children’s services budgets overall by an estimated £918 million.[23]
  • A February 2019 report from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) revealed that because of ‘budget restraints’ 24 per cent of councils were planning ‘to reduce activity in children’s care services’.[24]
  • Later that month an analysis by a group of charities found that between 2011-12 and 2017-18 central government funding for children aged 0 to 19 had fallen by 32 per cent – from £813 to £553 per child.[25]             

Despite a warning from Ofsted’s Chief Inspector that such cuts were ‘a false economy, simply leading to greater pressures elsewhere’[26], by January 2019 the Department’s own returns were showing that in 2017-18 councils’ spending on children’s centres and the under-5’s had fallen by £110 million. The cut to ‘services for young people’ specifically had been £32 million, with the proportion of the overall spend on them dropping from 4.9 per cent to 4.4 per cent.[27]

Two examples illustrated what such cuts could mean on the ground:

  • In February 2019 Derbyshire County Council’s announced that over the five financial years up to 2023-24 it would be reducing from £12.9 million to £4.3 million its funding for ‘early help’ – the provision into which authorities had often relocated youth workers when they closed down their Youth Services.[28]
  • The following month the Green party co-leader and London assembly member Sian Berry’s updated enquiry into cuts to London borough Youth Services revealed that since 2011 the number of youth centres in the capital had fallen from 234 to 130; that 560 youth workers had lost their jobs; and that overall spending had been reduced by 46 per cent, with the cuts in 29 councils totalling £26.3 million.[29]

… and the future?

As ‘the Brexit debate’ increasingly – and increasingly bitterly and divisively – diverted policy-makers’ attention from issues as crucial as growing staffing shortages in the NHS and schools’ growing reliance on parents and charities to fund core activities, youth workers were thus faced with a very challenging question: (how) could they persuade a government – even one which in opposition had committed to reinstating local Youth Services – to find the time, the money or indeed the will actually to do this?


[1] John Lanchester, 2010, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, London, Penguin; John Lanchester, 2018, ‘After the Fall’, London Review of Books, Vol 40, No 13, 5 July; Aditya Chakrabortty, 2018, ‘Ten years on, it’s as if we’ve learned nothing from the crash’, Guardian, 5 September

[2] See for example George Monbiot, 2016, ‘Neoliberalism: the ideology at the root of all our problems, Guardian, 15 April; Katie Allen, 2016, ‘Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation’, Guardian, 6 December; Nikil Saval, 2017, ‘The great globalisation backlash’, Guardian, 15 July; Andy Beckett, 2017, ‘How Britain fell out of love with the free market’, Guardian, 5 August; William Davies, 2018, ‘Against Responsibility’, London Review of Books, 8 November 

[3] Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Nearly half of UK children in poverty by 2021, UN expert warns”’, CYPN, 22 May; Danny Dorling, 2019, ‘Letters – Anti-Masochism’, London Review of Books, Vol 41, no 12, 20 June   

[4] Katie Allen, 2016, ‘Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation’, Guardian, 6 December

[5] Larry Elliott, 2019, ‘Nations must protect spending on the vulnerable, says IMF chief’ Guardian, 14 June 

[6] Theresa May, 2017, ‘Theresa May: Building a country that works for everyone’, 10 October, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uB8KUK68UYc

[7] Heather Stewart, 2018, ‘Theresa May pledges end to austerity in Tory conference speech’, Guardian, 3 October, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/03/theresa-may-conference-speech-ambasts-labour-as-she-calls-for-tory-unity      

[8] Rowena Mason and Richard Adams, 2019, ‘May urges Tories to cut tuition fees and revive student grants’, Guardian, 30 May, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/30/may-urges-tories-cut-tuition-fees-revive-student-grants

[9] Phillip Inman and Larry Elliot, 2018, ‘“Phillip Hammond: party must offer answers to Labour’s questions”’, Guardian, 1 October, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/01/philip-hammond-vows-to-stick-with-austerity-in-conference-speech-amazon-google; Rob Merrick, 2018, ‘Budget 2018: Austerity to continue for five more years if Britain leaves EU with no deal, Hammond warns’, Independent, 29 October, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget-2018-philip-hammond-brexit-eu-no-deal-theresa-may-austerity-a8607766.html    

[10] Anna Fazackerley, 2019, ‘Universities condemn “catastrophic” plan to link fees to graduate pay’, Guardian, 11 June

[11] Polly Toynbee, 2019, ‘Behold, the Tory leadership candidates: all in denial, all in dreamland’, Guardian, 10 June

[12] All Party Parliamentary Group, 2019, Report from the Inquiry into the Role and Sufficiency of Youth Work, NYA, April, https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/APPG-Youth-Work-Inquiry-Final-Report-April-2019-ONLINE.pdf

[13] Sonia Sodha, 2019, ‘Knife crime and school exclusions are symptoms of a wider malaise’, Guardian, 8 March

[14] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Data links youth service cuts to knife crime rise”’, CYPN, 8 May   

[15] Cat Smith, 2018, ‘How Labour would rebuild Britain’s devastated youth services’, Guardian, 3 December; UNISON, 2018, ‘Axing millions from youth work puts futures at risk, says UNISON’, 3 December https://www.unison.org.uk/news/press-release/2018/12/axing-millions-youth-work-puts-futures-risk-says-unison/; Tanni Grey-Thompson and Lawrence Dallaglio, 2019, ‘Opening up school sport facilities would give every child a healthy summer’, Guardian, 3 May;

[16] Helen Mulholland, 2018, ‘Youth work cuts leave young people out in the cold’, Guardian, 31 October; Joe Lepper, 2018, ‘“Call to boost after-school youth work to reduce risk of violence”’, CYPN, 11 October; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Mayor of London fund aims to boost youth crime prevention”’, CYPN, 22 February; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Young people to develop youth charter with government”’, CYPN, 11 April; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Mayor launches new £15m youth funding round”’, CYPN, 16 May 

[17] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Council invests £1.4m in youth service to combat austerity”’, CYPN, 12 June

[18] Guardian, 2018, ‘Council spending: A cash-starved politics will entrench the disaffection that blights Britain today’, 9 February; LGA, 2018, ‘Local services face further £1.3 billion government funding cut in 2019/20’, LGA, 1 October, https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/local-services-face-further-ps13-billion-government-funding-cut-201920 

[19] Peter S. Goodman, 2018, ‘Britain’s Big Freeze: In Britain, Austerity is changing everything’, New York Times, 28 May

[20] Suzanne Moore, 2019, ‘George Osborne’s policies took a wrecking ball to our public services – and our money’, Guardian, 4 March  

[21] UNISON, 2018, ‘Axing millions from youth work puts futures at risk, says UNISON’, 3 December; https://www.unison.org.uk/news/press-release/2018/12/axing-millions-youth-work-puts-futures-risk-says-unison/

[22] Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“Spending on children in care exceeds £4bn for first time”’, CYPN, 27 September 

[23] Joe Lepper, 2018, ‘“Councils plan £900m of cuts including children’s services and early years”’, CYPN, 20 September.    

[24] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“One on four councils plan children’s services cuts”’, CYPN, 14 February    

[25] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Children’s services ‘ay breaking point’ due to funding cuts, charities warn”’, CYPN, 26 February  

[26] Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“Children’s services cuts ‘a false economy’, Ofsted warns”’, CYPN, 4 December 

[27] Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Spending on children’s centres and youth services down by £140m”’, CYPN, 9 January  

[28] Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Council axes 160 jobs as its cuts £8.6m from early help budget”’, CYPN, 6 February 

[29] Dan Hancox, ‘Number of London youth clubs nearly halved since 2011 riots, report finds’, Guardian, 22 March 

Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England is published by Palgrave MacMillan (https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030038854    

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