THE ELECTION LOOMS – WHERE IS YOUTH WORK; WHERE IS THE YOUTH SERVICE?

In the run-up to the Election I ponder – where is youth work; where is the Youth Service? 

General election campaigns don’t usually put much of a focus on youth work or local Youth Services. And – perhaps this time particularly – why would they? Alongside, say, voters’ experience of waiting six weeks for a GP appointment or of schools struggling to put text books on their kids’ desks – to say nothing of the ‘let’s just get Brexit done’ syndrome – why would cheeky teenagers’ complaints about having nowhere to go in an evening be seen as a priority. 

Yet a number of top-down Youth Service/youth work policy initiatives have been in the pipeline over the last two-to-three months. They of course come with no guarantees that any of them will be picked up by a new government, and certainly not that they’ll be turned into effective action. Nor can they be treated uncritically by those of us committed to a practice which is open to any young person who chooses to engage and open to ‘outcomes’ as those young people might define them. 

Nonetheless as markers that for the first time in at least a decade national policy-makers might just be taking that practice seriously, it seems worth reminding ourselves of some of those interventions and of their pros as well as their cons. Because if we don’t give them some prominence in the run up to the election, who will? 

Government agendas

Gestures policies

Throughout the post-2010 austerity period, ministers have made repeated gestures to filling the gaps left by their demolition of local authorities’ year-round youth work provision. In comparison to the ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government money for ‘youth services’ which by 2018 was going to the National Citizens Service (NCS) [1], these new ‘Funds’ – ‘Big Society’, ‘Youth Investment’, ‘Youth Engagement’, ‘Early Intervention’, ‘Life Chances’, to name but a few – have offered small amounts of funding for usually time-limited programmes. Often, too, allocated through competitive tendering, this has proved highly divisive, nationally and also within a local area. Significant proportions anyway have gone to government-favoured organisations and schemes such as Step Up to Serve’s #iwill ‘social action’ programme and uniformed youth groups, including ones linked to the armed services.      

Examples of such recent gestures include:

  • An allocation of £4 million in August 2019 towards the development of an OnSide ‘youth zone’ in Grimsby – part of a wider government ‘Town Deal’ regeneration programme [2].
  • A new £500 million Youth Investment Fund, first announced by the Chancellor Sajid Javid in his Spending Round statement in September. In response to the loss since 2012 of some 760 youth buildings and 4500 youth work jobs [3], this is offering money for 60 new youth centres, refurbishing 360 existing ones, providing 100 mobile youth facilities and ‘an investment in the youth workforce’ [4].
  • £12 million allocated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to help address ‘urgent needs in the youth sector – £5 million again for the #iwill programme and £7 million for a new ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’ to ‘expand existing successful projects … delivering extra sessions in youth clubs, and promoting positive activities in sport and the arts to help young people develop skills and contribute to their communities’[5].

Civil Society Strategy

In August 2018, the government published a Civil Society Strategy ambitiously sub-titled ‘Building a Future that Works for Everyone’ [6]. Framed by ‘a vision of the UK with better connected communities, more neighbourliness, and businesses which strengthen society’, it defined civil society ‘… not by organisational form, but in terms of activity, defined by purpose (what it is for) and control (who is in charge)’. More specifically it saw the term as referring ‘… to individuals and organisations when they act with the primary purpose of creating social value, independent of state control’ – with, in this context, ‘social value’ understood as ‘enrich(ing)lives and a fairer society for all’. 

The Strategy’s ‘Mission 3’ – headed ‘opportunities for young people’ – seeks ‘to change the culture of policy design and implementation so that young people are systematically involved in shaping the policies that affect them’. The aim of these policies are explained as to ‘broaden our approach so that all young people from an early age can access a range of positive and integrated activities including youth programmes, cultural activities, and volunteering’. Options are to be explored ‘for building on the cross-sector partnership created by the #iwill campaign, to identify how the existing offer for young people can be improved’. Also given strong endorsement, including via a ‘success story’ case study, are the National Citizens Service and uniformed youth groups.

As always in government youth policy statements of this period, one of the paper’s repeated emphases is on ‘ensuring … the most disadvantaged young people transition into work…’ and that they ‘… develop the skills and habits of social responsibility during their childhood and youth’. This is seen as applying, too, to what the paper calls ‘the transformational impact that youth services and trained youth workers can have’ which are described as ‘especially important ‘for young people facing multiple barriers or disadvantage’. 

The Strategy also promised to set up a ‘Civil Society Youth Steering Group’ to ‘oversee the development and implementation of policies affecting young people’. Action on this came in February 2019 with a DCMS 12-month grant of £170,000 to the British Youth Council (BYC), to be used in part to establish a ‘Youth Steering Group’ and a ‘Young Inspectors Group’ [7].

In October 2019, a new Civil Society minister, Baroness Barran, published a review of progress in implementing the Strategy. In this she talked of ‘continu(ing) to invest in positive activities for young people to enable them to fulfil their potential and contribute to their communities’. Again given particular emphasis was the NCS programme ‘that helps build a more responsible, more cohesive and more engaged society’. ‘Investments’ in other youth programmes and organisations were confirmed. These included £5 million for uniformed youth groups such as Fire Cadets and Scouts to create over 10,000 new places for young people in ‘disadvantaged’ areas and £40 million for volunteering and community engagement through the #iwill Fund [8].

Just two weeks after the minister’s review appeared, the ‘election manifesto’ of the voluntary sector’s umbrella body, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), suggested some significant gaps in the Strategy. For example, NCVO in called on the government to involve charities more in policy making and in particular to ‘strengthen its commitment to social value’. It made clear, too, that the sector required more, and more reliable, resources, specifically highlighting the need to ensure that lost EU funding to the UK was replaced at ‘a comparable level of investment’. It also proposed that some of the billions of pounds stuck in dormant bank accounts be used to set up a community wealth fund [9].

Review of the Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being 

A policy initiative with the potential for longer-term impact on local authority decision-making – a review of the statutory guidance on the provision of local youth services – was also flagged up in the Civic Society Strategy paper. Though starting from the somewhat limited rationale that since the 2012 revision ‘much has happened to change the way these services are provided’, the aim was explained as to ‘provide greater clarity of government’s expectations, including the value added by good youth work’ [10]

Almost a year elapsed before the then minister for Civil Society Mims Davies restated the original commitment to it and a further three months for her successor, Baroness Barran, to make a call for evidence [11]. With a closing date of 1st December 2019, this is now being gathered through an 11-page questionnaire for service providers, a 4-page questionnaire for young people and a 6-page ‘Tool for Conversations with Young People’ [12]. The aim – set before the election was called – is currently for updated guidance to be published in the spring of 2020.

Any appraisal of these moves, however, has to start with some crucial cautions. 

  • When the current statutory guidance was published in June 2012 even organisations whose ‘independence of state control’ was by then under growing pressure described the new guidelines as lacking clarity and the ‘objective measures’ needed for judging a local authority’s provision [13]. 
  • In line with post-2010 governments’ highly individualised ways of defining young people’s needs and problems, the 2012 revision of the guidelines narrowed the local authority’s duty from a more broadly educational one to one focused on just young people’s ‘well-being’. 
  • Though within two years of this guidance being issued a Cabinet Office report revealed that 56 of the 97 councils surveyed were not fully adhering to it [14], it had taken another five years to persuade ministers that another revision might be needed [15].

With most of the review questions framed in very bland ways, they offer no prompts for locating responses in the wider resource and infrastructure problems which have led to open youth work’s widespread demise across England. For example, question 12 of the questionnaire for service providers’ offers only four tick-box options – from ‘Very well’ to ‘Very poorly’ – for judging how well the existing guidance achieves the aim of ‘advis(ing) local authorities on what to take into account when deciding what services and activities to secure for young people’. No encouragement is given therefore for commenting on how the guidance’ may have allowed local authorities to marginalise open forms of youth work – by for example, in its very first lines, effectively de-prioritising young people who, it says, have ‘the right supportive relationships… ’; and then by repeatedly insisting that the focus must be on the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘disadvantaged’ [16]

Some embedded assumptions in a later question, number 13, also need to be challenged if the guidance is to contribute to the reinstatement of forms of open youth work. One, for example, by baldly stating that ‘the leadership role of local authorities’ is just about ‘convening key stakeholders’, seems to rule out what will surely often be crucial in the future – that those authorities again act proactively as direct providers. Another – on ‘the role of qualified youth workers’ – not only limits this to ‘leading positive activities for young people’. It also skirts round the fall in the number of students on qualifying courses between 2011-12 and 2017-18 from 951 to 432 [17] and, no less essential, the need for government and others also to re-establish the training routes for part-timers and volunteers.

One bottom-line demand, however, will need to underpin all such responses: the deletion of a phrase, used three times in the 2012 guidance (paras 2, 3, 5), which allows – requires? – local authorities to provide their ‘local offer’ for young people only ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. Under the pressure of the major cuts to councils’ funding since 2010, particularly to their Treasury Revenue Support Grant, those six words have rendered the guidance largely meaningless.

The NYA: in support of government policy 

Under similar financial pressures, the NYA has in recent years often seemed to be operating like any voluntary sector organisation – by for example jointly managing NCS programmes in the North East. However, it still describes itself as ‘the national body for youth work’ and carries out important national functions – particularly, through its Education and Training Sub-committee (ETS), the validation of the youth work qualifications in England recognised by the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC).

In seeking to play this national role, over the last year NYA has taken a number of initiatives which, though at times seeming to tack to what is likely to appeal to ministerial thinking, have supplemented some of the government’s own policy responses. 

  • In 2018, after urging that a ‘youth covenant’ setting out the government’s overall commitment to young people be included in the Civil Society Strategy, it has now published its own Youth Covenant [18].
  • Between July and October this year it ran consultation ‘roadshows’ in eight regions of England, one of whose agenda items was the DCMS’s review of the statutory guidance to local authorities. This was followed in October by a National Youth Work Summit attended by ‘80 youth sector leaders’.
  • Also in October it published a youth service’s ‘Sufficiency Statement’, with ‘sufficiency’ defined as ‘at least two professional youth workers and a team of youth support workers and trained volunteers …. for each secondary school catchment area’. It proposed, too, that such guidance ‘… be supported by a clear statement from government on the importance of providing a sufficient offer to young people’ to include ‘easily available … universal settings’ alongside other services. The statement also endorsed proposals by both the government and the Labour Party (see below) that future Youth Services be managed overall by local youth partnerships, to include representation from young people and the voluntary sector [19]
  • This month NYA launched the £500,000 scheme, announced by the government in July, to in its first year provide 450 bursaries for youth workers qualifying at NVQ Levels 2 and 3. Though greeted sceptically by the Chief Executive of London Youth for failing even to replace ‘the 800 youth work positions that have disappeared in London alone over the last decade’, the scheme was presented by NYA as part of its own ‘national initiative to grow the workforce’ [20].
  • In its own ‘High 5’ General Election manifesto NYA sought commitments from the political parties’ to its proposed Youth Covenant and local youth partnerships and to its definition of Sufficiency [21].

NYA seems, too, to be intending to embed open youth work more firmly in its own programmes by appointing JNC-qualified and experienced staff as a Director of Youth Work and a Youth Work Specialist [22].

The opposition parties: where is the youth work?

The Liberal Democrats

Albeit without any noticeable pre-campaign build-up, in a sub-section in their Election Manifesto headed ‘A Public Health Approach to Violence’, the LibDems’ commitment to youth work is explained as:

Invest in youth services. We will provide a £500m ring-fenced youth services fund to local authorities to repair the damage done to youth services and enable them to deliver a wider range of services, reach more young people and improve training for youth workers [23]

The Green Party

Also framed as a primarily preventative – especially anti-crime – practice, the Green Party’s election commitment to youth work is expressed as:   

Invest in youth services and centres, to help turn at-risk children away from crime. All the evidence shows the cuts in youth services have increased crime, especially knife crime. To end knife crime once and for all we need to invest in specialist programmes provided through youth centres [24].

The Labour Party vision

In two separate sections of its Manifesto the Labour commitments are presented as:

We will rebuild our youth services and guarantee young people’s access to youth workers.

… Too many young people now have nowhere to go, nothing to do and no one to help them with their problems. Labour will build a properly funded, professionally staffed National Youth Service, and will guarantee every young person has access to local, high-quality youth work [25].


In Labour’s case, however, these two bald statements have to be seen as emerging from a process which, starting in late 2018 with a consultation exercise, led a month before the election to the publication of Only Young Once, Labour’s detailed 35-page ‘vision for rebuilding Youth Services’[26].This has now been followed by an 8-page ‘youth manifesto’, The Future is Ours [27]. Both in its grasp of the defining features of the practice and in its actual proposals, Only Young Once offers the most comprehensive and convincing blueprint yet of how, both strategically and on the ground, open youth work might be genuinely re-embedded in any future ‘youth offer’. Indeed, if Labour’s proposals ever actually get to be implemented, it could come to be seen as the Albemarle report for the 21st century [28].

As I have already offered my response to the paper [29], what follows focuses on the conclusions and proposals which, in the run up to the Election, seem particularly worth restating and on some issues needing further clarification and debate. 

Starting from a recognition of the damage caused by the demolition of local Youth Services since 2010, the paper for example:

  • Tasks Youth Services with recognising ‘the agency young people have as a group to be empowered’; with helping to ‘realise their full potential and live successfully in their communities’; and with ‘address(ing) social inequalities … including discrimination and racial disparities…’.
  • Defines the main purpose of the practice as ‘to provide non-formal education that supports the personal, social and political development of all young people…’.
  • Describes this provision as ‘based on relationships of trust between young people and trained youth workers’, with ‘voluntary participation … applying across all levels’ and ‘interaction … negotiated with young people from the outset’.
  • Locates this practice ‘in a range of contexts and settings in which young people choose to be…’.
  • Identifies youth workers as contributing ‘vital forms of skilled support…’, including to ‘groups with specific identities, such as LGBT+ people, young people with special needs, young women, or specific religious communities’. 

To help ensure that – ‘in its own right’ and ‘independent and complementary to other services’ – this open youth work provision is reinstated, Labour’s proposal include:

  • Appointing ‘a Minister for Children and Young People responsible for the national youth service (to) sit within the Department for Education supporting the Secretary of State’.
  • New legislation setting out local authorities’ statutory duties which, rather than offering ‘a get-out clause: that the youth work activities … be provided only “so far as reasonably practicable”’, instead ‘clearly defines a base level of (youth work) sufficiency’….
  • Long–term, stable funding for youth services to ensure all young people have access to high quality youth work provision that matches their needs’.
  • The development of ‘a national youth workforce development strategy’.

In relatively open-minded ways the paper also addresses two on–going youth work dilemmas:

  • How to develop methods and processes of evaluation which ‘fit’ with the practice’s young people-led and ‘on the wing’ approaches and interventions.
  • How to ‘professionalise’ the work and its workforce by, for example, establishing a formally endorsed ‘licence to practice’ while at the same time continuing to recognise and indeed give credit to the huge contribution made by volunteer youth workers.

Unavoidably, perhaps, given its scope, the paper does leave some important questions unanswered. Two which, for me, stand out are:

  • Within Labour’s proposed highly ambitious open youth work offer, what is to happen to resource-hungry NCS programmes which have regularly failed to meet their recruitment targets?
  • For actually delivering this offer in the young people-focused ways envisaged, can local authorities’ often inflexible internal power relationships, structures and procedures adapt – perhaps radically – to work with and through the paper’s proposed ‘collaborative partnerships at local, regional, national and international level’? 

Even allowing for these ambiguities – and assuming of course that Labour manages to get a handle on power – Only Young Once suggests that buried within those two brief Manifesto sentences are the best prospects we’ve had for a very long time for sustained and appropriately focused state sponsorship and funding for open youth work. 

FOOTNOTES

1. Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to Account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June

2. Neil Puffett, 2019, ‘“Government announces money for new youth zone”’, CYPN, 16 August

3. Unison. (2018) ‘Youth services at breaking point’, at  https://www.unison.org.uk/youth-services-report/

 4. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Javid announces £500m for youth fund”’ CYPN, 30 September; Gov.UK, 2019, ‘Chancellor announces support for post-Brexit future’, 30 September, at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-announces-support-for-post-brexit-future–2

 5. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Government announces £12m boost for youth sector”’, CYPN, 25 October; GOV.UK, 2019, ‘£12 million boost for youth projects’, 25 October, at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/12-million-boost-for-youth-projects

6. HM Government, 2018, Civil Society Strategy: Building a future that works for everyone, August, at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/732765/Civil_Society_Strategy_-_building_a_future_that_works_for_everyone.pdf

7. GOV.UK, 2019, ‘DCMS launches new youth voice projects’, February, at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dcms-launches-new-youth-voice-projects

8.  DCMS, 2019, at ‘Policy paper; #OurCivilSociety’, 25 October, at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/our-civil-society/ourcivilsociety

9. NCVO, 2019, A bigger Role in Building Our Future: Our vision for charities and volunteering, NCVO, 11 November https://publications.ncvo.org.uk/bigger-role-building-our-future/greater-role-more-open-democracy/; Liam Kay, 2019, ‘NCVO calls on the next government to do more to engage with civil society’, Third Sector, 12 November

10. HM Government, 2018, Civil Society Strategy: Building a Society That Works for Everyone, p 42, at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-society-strategy-building-a-future-that-works-for-everyone

11. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Government launches review of youth work guidance”’, CYPN, 10 July; Derren Hayes, 2019, ‘“Call for evidence into council youth work duties”’, CYPN, 3 October 

12. GOV.UK, 2019, Statutory guidance review for local youth services: have your say’, 3 October, at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/statutory-guidance-review-for-local-youth-services-have-your-say

13. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘“Youth services guidance must be clearer, commission says”’, CYPN, 29 May; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘“Revised youth service guidance still too vague, sector warns’”’, CYPN, 17 July

14. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘“Youth funding and services cut as councils overlook legal duty”’, CYPN, 22 July  

15.  Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘“Youth minister Rob Wilson rejects statutory services motion”’, CYPN, 4 December

16. GOV.UK, 2012, ‘Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being’, p 7, at  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/836238/Statutory_Guidance_for_Local_Authorities_on_Services_and_Activities_to_Improve_Young_People_s_Well-being.pdf

17. Dan Parton, 2019, ‘“Youth work training figures reveal record lows”’, CYPN, 12 August 

18. NYA, Youth Covenant, 2019, at https://nya.org.uk/youth-covenant/

19. NYA, 2019, ‘NYA Sufficiency Statement: ‘A base-line for youth services’, October, at https://nya.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/NYA-Sufficiency-Statement-Discussion-Paper.pdf

20. Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“Youth work bursaries dwarfed by scale of cuts, says charity”’, CYPN, 29 July;  NYA, 2019, ‘NYA to Launch new Bursary Fund’, November, at https://nya.org.uk/2019/11/nya-to-launch-new-bursary-fund/

21. NYA, 2019, ‘High 5 –Full Manifesto’, November, at https://nya.org.uk/high-5-full-manifesto/

22. NYA, 2019, ‘Vacancies with the National Youth Agency, at https://nya.org.uk/about-us/jobs/#id2, accessed 19 November 2019

23. Liberal Democrats, 2019, Stop Brexit: Build a Brighter Future¸ p 71, at https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/libdems/pages/57307/attachments/original/1574267252/Stop_Brexit_and_Build_a_Brighter_Future.pdf?1574267252

24. Green Party, 2019, If not Now, When?, p 65, at https://www.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Elections/Green%20Party%20Manifesto%202019.pdf

25. Labour Party, 2019, It’s time for Real Change: Labour Party Manifesto 2019,pp 43, 51,at https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/rebuild-our-public-services/

26. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, October, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Only-Young-Once.pdf

27. Labour Party, 2019, The Future is Ours: Youth Manifesto, November, at https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-Future-is-Ours.pdf

28. Ministry of Education, 1960, The Youth Service in England and Wales, HMSO

29. See https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/10/15/the-labour-partys-vision-for-open-youth-work/. See also Tony Taylor, 2019, ‘Labour’s Radical Manifesto commits to a National Youth Service’, at https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/11/23/labours-radical-manifesto-commits-to-a-national-youth-service/







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