‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

‘Building back better’ – often accompanied by a call to work towards a ‘new normal’ –seems to have become the favoured catchphrase for describing the goal of a post-pandemic recovery. Within the youth work field, for example, it was the title of a heartening Northampton University launch event in June of its new MA in Youth and Community Leadership. Reflecting some similar aspirations, the previous month the Institute for Youth Work had focussed its student-led conference on ‘adapting and building youth work’.

Often, it seems, the rebuilding required is explained mainly – even perhaps only – as a response to the pandemic and its impacts. And, from a young person’s perspective, why not, given the growing evidence of the damage this has done to their educational attainment, their job opportunities, their mental health and – of special concern to youth workers – their social relationships? 

What this evidence is also showing, however, is that, far from simply being the cause of these problems, the pandemic is often exacerbating ones which, deeply embedded in structural inequalities, have long been ignored by policy-makers and all but denied in two recent reports by government advisers and MPs [1]. All of which suggests that a genuine ‘building back better’ will need to be much more ambitious than just seeking to return to some deeply flawed version of a pre-pandemic ‘old normal’.

What, then, might such a vision look like, particularly for an open youth work practice committed to young people’s voluntary engagement and to starting from the interests and concerns of the ones who actually turn up?

Open youth work: the response so far 

With youth work buildings locked down for long periods, as well as drawing on their well-honed detached and outreach skills, youth workers have often sustained and even sometimes extended their relationships with young people by developing a range of ‘remote’ ways of working [2].These, however, come with significant cautions. One is that, contrary to the success stories dominating much of the early feedback, later anecdotal evidence has suggested that – with, say, parents within earshot of their devices – not all young people are comfortable with ‘digital’ engagement. For many, anyway, this is no substitute for the open youth work spaces where, face-to-face, they can meet friends, relax and have some fun – and where, too, a relationship might build with an adult who comes to be trusted precisely because, beyond that space, she or he has no built-in power over them. As one young man ‘of few words’ put it: 

‘I don’t go to school. My support is from the family I trust … and the youth workers at the Youth Centre’ [3]. 

An emerging cause for caution, too, is surely the growing interest of cost-conscious policy-makers in those ‘digital’ approaches. The government’s Youth Review consultation earlier this year, for example, asked respondents to comment on ‘the role digital provision (might) have in delivering services for young people?’[4] In outlining a new strategy for the National Citizens Service which includes proposals for a reduced budget, its Chief Executive also suggested the scheme might offer …greater opportunities for … digital support on issues including mental health and resilience…’ [5] 

An example, perhaps, of: be careful what you wish for?

Building back better’ – to where?

Given all that, what more specifically – and more positively – might ‘building back better’ mean for open youth work?
Here we should be very clear – and hard-line – that the ‘back’ being set for youth work cannot be the appearance of the pandemic in early 2020. It needs to be located much earlier – at the very least to before 2010 and an ‘austerity’ decade whose destructive impacts, still very much with us, continue to deepen those structural inequalities which so constrain so many young people’s futures.

To justify this I draw on two quite separate pieces of evidence. 

  • One: that in 2013 over 9 per cent of UK 10-15 year olds were using a youth club most days of week and nearly 29 per cent at least once a week. This suggests that – even before the 15-plus age group is taken into account – by 2018-19 up to 1.5 million young people might have been making regular use of a youth work facility [7].
  • The other: that for many of them this option is no longer available as, on the back of at least £400 million cuts to local authority Youth Services, over 760 youth centres have been closed and more than 4,500 youth work jobs lost [8]. And all this without taking into account these cuts’ knock-on effects on the voluntary sector.

What follows in no way seeks to downplay the damage done by the pandemic. However, for me these starting points demonstrate that, to have any credibility, ‘building back’ for youth work will at the very least have to have much bolder aspirations. Above all these will need to press for the reinstatement to at least their pre-2010 pre-austerity levels of those open leisure spaces for which so many young people had been voting for with their feet, and of the training routes essential for ensuring these are properly staffed. 

Southmead Youth Centre

Hard though it is to take in, if other (again anecdotal) evidence is to be believed this may also now need to be backed up by efforts to raise the awareness of what a ‘local youth club’ might offer to a teenage generation with little or no lived experience of such a facility. 

‘Reinstatement’ – beyond ‘the what’ to ‘the how’ 

How, then, might we begin to move beyond an easy-to-throw-around word like ‘reinstatement’ towards what this might look like on the ground? One immediate, albeit negative, response is: not necessarily by bringing back those local authority Youth Services too often characterised in the past by top-down bureaucratic structures and procedures.

Indeed, as damaging as their loss has been for so many young people, the huge gaps left by their disappearance now offer an opportunity to think afresh – not least about how we might create bottom-up forms of management and accountability more responsive to open youth work’s ‘on-the-wing’, process-led ways of working with young people.

In my search for how this rather rhetorical aspiration might be turned into more positive practical action, I began to explore what has come to be known as ‘the Preston model’ of local government [9]. Describing itself as ‘solving problems from below without permission from above’, this is linked into a global ‘municipalist movement’ of ‘community-wealth building’ aimed at ‘a meaningful transfer of wealth and power back to local communities’. As a way of spending local money locally, for example, Preston council has sought to take back control of ‘outsourced’ public services – on which by 2015 councils nationally were spending £120 billion. Offering contracts requiring all staff to be paid the living wage, by 2020 Preston was recording ‘its highest employment rate and lowest levels of economic inactivity for over fifteen years…’ 

For achieving its primary purposes of economic regeneration and adaptation, a key focus at ground-level has been on supporting ‘… worker-owned businesses and credit unions’ and the creation of local co-ops and ‘social enterprises’. Though less clear on how far it has shifted the power dynamics within what it calls ‘community support and solidarity, including welfare and social, cultural and leisure provision’, the model’s decade-plus on-the-ground experience nonetheless suggests a range of approaches which seem relevant, too, to these areas of local state provision – including open youth work.

So – where are we now?

Though too often narrowly preoccupied with ‘preventative’ forms of ‘early intervention’ for dealing with knife crime and mental health problems, before the pandemic hit groups of MPs had begun to give open access youth work some renewed positive attention [10]. This revived recently with, for example, comments by Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on how deprived neighbourhoods have been hit hardest by local Youth Service cuts [11] and – in some detail – by an interim review report from an All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs looking specifically at youth work in England [12].

Starting by acknowledging how Covid-19 has stopped progress ‘in its tracks’, the latter particularly highlights the delays until 2022 in completing the government’s review of the statutory youth work guidance to local authorities and in releasing money from a promised Youth Investment Fund. And though again rather too preoccupied with youth work’s role in ‘enhanc(ing) young people’s skills for life and work’, the report does confront the evidence that ‘1 in 3 teenagers are not happy with services and activities in their local area’ and that ‘through Covid-recovery young people don’t feel listened to by politicians’. 

The report also lays down what could be some important bottom lines for a possible future ‘reinstatement’ programme. It for example:

  • recognises ‘the role of youth work as a distinctive form of education’;
  • endorses ‘young people’s expectations for regular access to … somewhere (safe) to go, something (fun) to do with friends and to learn new skills, and (to) a (trusted) adult…’
  • concludes that, while ‘safe digital spaces … have provided additional support for some’, these are ‘not a substitute for face-to-face provision’;
  • asserts the need for ‘committed long term funding at the grass roots’ – particularly to replace youth work‘s long-time reliance on ‘short term project or programme-led funding’ with consequences which have included ‘insecurity of employment (and) limited career opportunities’; 
  • insists that the Government has ‘a primary role … to secure sufficient youth places and activities across local youth services’, supplemented by ‘a rich heritage of voluntary sector provision’.  

For starting to implement these aspirations, the APPG also has some to-the-point recommendations. That, for example:

  • to raise youth work’s profile at national policy-making levels, ‘consideration … be given to … a dual role jointly held at the DCMS (Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport) and the DfE (Department for Education), or for a cross-departmental committee to be chaired by the Minister’;
  • government statutory guidance ‘… be strengthened with a clear understanding of what is a “sufficient” level of youth services for a local area…’;
  • to overcome youth services’ ‘inconsistent’ funding through local authorities and the resultant ‘patchwork of youth provision across the country’, local youth partnerships be established or developed (which) incorporate young people in consultation and decision-making’;
  • the introduction of ‘a national strategy … to recruit, train and sustain qualified and entry-level youth workers, and adult volunteers’;
  • the creation of ‘new “light touch” inspection arrangements’ … to ‘help ensure the quality of youth provision, including safeguarding and equity of access for young people’.

And the money?

Clearly all this leaves us a long way from the kind of sustained ‘reinstatement’ I suggested earlier – above all because in the present circumstances it is far from clear whether or how anything like the necessary resources will be made available. Though of course the government won’t be using the word, despite a Treasury promise of an extra £170 million of government spending in the autumn budget [13], for many public services another era of ‘austerity’ looks inevitable. Back in July – that is, even before the recent proposals for more money for health and social care – the predicted gap between public spending and revenue for the current financial year was £234 billion, suggesting possible cuts in planned public services expenditure of between £14 and £17 billion [14]. And all this at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urged on by powerful sections of his party, is said to be insisting on ‘fiscally disciplined’ policies which could even block measures crucial to achieving the UK’s zero carbon emission commitments [15].

Against this background, it seems, the most that open youth work – or indeed other forms of informal work with young people – can expect from this government are bits of what I call ‘gesture funding’. This was surely illustrated again in August by a £2 million DCMS ‘investment’, topped up by £2 million of Lottery money, in #Iwill – the youth volunteering/‘social action’ scheme which evidence indicated last year was becoming less attractive to, particularly ‘disadvantaged’, young people.

Not much ‘building back better’ there then.

Bernard Davies, September 2021


  1. See for example GOV.UK, 2021, The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 31 March, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-report-of-the-commission-on-race-and-ethnic-disparities; House of Commons Select Education Committee Report, 2021, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, 22 June, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6364/documents/70802/default/ 
  2. See for example Batsleer et al, 2020/2021, ‘Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID-19’, Youth and Policy, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/tag/diaries/  
  3. Janet Batsleer etc, 2021, ‘The Importance of Our Wild Stories: The Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the Time of COVID-19’, 15 January, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/the-importance-of-our-wild-stories/. See also for example Anna Bawden, 2020, ‘“Meeting my youth worker is the only time I eat a meal with another person”’, Guardian, 29 April 
  4. Department for Media, Culture and Sport, 2021, ‘Form: Youth sector engagement exercise’, 23 February, p 4, available at  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/engagement-exercise-on-out-of-school-support-for-young-people/youth-sector-engagement-exercise.
  5. Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘NCS boss sets out plans to expand scheme’, CYPN, 25 May
  6.  National Council for Voluntary Youth Services, 2013, ‘Youth Report 2013’, http://www.ncvys.org.uk/sites/default/files/Youth%20Report%202013v2.pdf
  7. Statista, 2021, ‘Population of the United Kingdom in 2019, by age group’, accessed 17 August 2021,  file:///C:/Users/Owner/Favorites/Desktop/Documents/PolicyPapersetc%20-%20Copy/Yp/PopStats2019(0’19yos).html
  8. Unison, 2018, ‘Youth Services at breaking point’, December, https://www.unison.org.uk/content/uploads/2019/04/Youth-services-report-04-2019.pdf
  9. Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones, 2021, Paint your Town Red: How Preston took back control and your town can do too, Repeater.
  10. See for example All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2019, Youth Work Enquiry: Final Report, https://nya.org.uk/static/dd541a2ccc2078f9e9bac988fbfb8e4c/APPG-Youth-Work-Inquiry-Final-Report-April-2019-ONLINE.pdf; House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmhaff/1016/1016.pdf, accessed 12 September 2021
  11. Rowena Mason, 2021, ‘Tory cuts to English youth services fuelling crime; say Keir Starmer’, Guardian, 16 August 
  12. All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2021, Review of Youth Work in England: Interim report, July, http://www.youthappg.org.uk/review-of-youth-work-in-england-interim-report/
  13. Philip Inman, 2021, ‘Rishi Sunak confirms autumn budget to take place on 27 October’, Guardian, 7 September  
  14. Richard Partington, ‘UK public services face cuts of up to £17bn, says IFS’, Guardian, 21 July
  15. Teasury blocking green policies key to UK net zero targets’, Guardian, 13 August

One thought on “‘Building Back Better’ – to what?

  1. Pingback: A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations – YOUTH WORK'S LIVING HISTORY

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