Disadvantaged teenagers left isolated as clubs and holiday camps are closed

Youth clubs and adventure camps that once attracted hundreds of thousands of young people during term time and summer holidays have shut their doors over the last few years, following a battery of cuts to youth services that have left disadvantaged teenagers idle and isolated. From Kent to Manchester, clubs where young people escaped from daily stress now sit derelict. Others have been sold off and developed into cafes or private care homes. And the cuts come amid the slashing of adolescent mental health services and careers’ advice throughout England.

In Trafford, in Greater Manchester, the council shut all seven of its youth centres last year, shrinking its youth service budget by more than half. Dotting the borough’s deprived neighbourhoods, the council-run clubs were a haven for teenagers, with staff supporting them through challenges ranging from sexual health issues to finding employment.

For Katie Abbott, 17, who used to spend afternoons at her local club, the closures felt like a move against the already marginalised. “People who have the money for private mental health care, or careers advice, will get that support anyway, but this is hitting harder on people with less money,” says Abbott, who now has no access to summer programmes and stays at home with little to do. “If you don’t have a stable home life, and a lot of people in Trafford don’t, now there’s no place to find a release.”

Youth workers, advocates, and local people, say that as a result of the closures crowds of youngsters are hanging around street corners, drinking and bullying others. “Relentless cuts to youth budgets have made it much harder for staff to connect with local youngsters,” says Lizanne Devonport, a regional organiser for trade union Unison in the north-west, which represents youth workers in Trafford. “And you now see large groups of teenagers congregating around stations, shops and parks.”

The problems are not confined to Trafford. A survey of youth workers across the UK by Unison, published later this week, has found that 83% of respondents said cuts to services had led to increased local crime and anti-social behaviour.

Trafford council is in the process of establishing a youth trust, a charitable organisation that will look to raise funds from outside local government to commission additional youth services. “Local government is fundamentally changing,” says Jill Colbert, Trafford’s corporate director for children, families and wellbeing, “and civic society has a greater responsibility to meet the needs of its communities.” For now, social enterprises have stepped in to run a couple of the former centres one night each week.

In response to steep budget cuts by central government, a handful of other English councils are also trying to establish alternative models that raise private funds for youth work. In 2010-11 local government spending on youth services in England was £1.2bn. By 2013-14 it had fallen to £712m (a 40% drop) according to the most recently analysed data. But the new groups for young people are all faced with the same daunting question. Who, exactly, is going to pay?

In 2010, the coalition government trumpeted public service mutuals as a way to maintain public services in the face of cutbacks to non-statutory provision. Youth workers and other hard-hit local government workers could set up employee-led cooperatives, the government argued. The theory was that the mutuals would preserve the public service ethos while attracting private money to supplement dwindling state funds. These new groups could enter into a short contract with the council and later bid to run the service in the open market.

But six years on, only three councils have managed to mutualise their youth services. Most others have scrapped universal clubs in favour of programmes targeted at vulnerable groups and have whittled provision down to a spindly core, saving an estimated £500m. Experts fear that the youth service’s early intervention work is fast being eroded. “Now, young people aren’t being supported, just because they aren’t flagged as at risk of criminal behaviour or sexual exploitation,” says Janet Batsleer, principal lecturer in youth and community work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Knowsley Youth Mutual is one attempt at mutualisation in which former council employees now run a youth enterprise in the second most deprived borough in England. Although the north-west council has shrunk its core youth service budget by nearly half since 2010, KYM continues to run 14 youth clubs, and maintains the preventative side of the service.

Early this summer holiday, some 50 young people milled about the halls of a KYM club, playing football in the gym, giggling over a quiz on the dangers of Pokémon Go, and dreaming up day trips with staff. “Can we go sailing?” a lanky 16-year-old asked, bouncing on her seat. “Could do, actually, and gorge walking, and archery,” a youth worker responded to the group of young girls seated around him.

Bethany Duffy, 18, is a regular at her local club in Knowsley. Four years ago, her mother’s death sent her into a tailspin of street-drinking and petty crime, and she was excluded from school. Estranged from her father, Duffy was sofa surfing and found refuge in the youth club, where staff soon became close confidantes.

“I was anxious, I was angry, but as soon as I started getting my feelings out something changed,” says Duffy, seated by the pool tables in the centre.

Asked how life would look if the centres weren’t around, she says: “I think that I’d be in jail”. A youth worker encouraged her to get involved with in-house counselling and meeting groups for unemployed teenagers, and she is now applying for college. “I’ve got my head screwed on,” Duffy says. “And, in a way, they gave me my childhood back, too.”

Sandra Richardson transferred her team of youth workers from Knowsley council to a youth mutual in 2014. She had tracked neighbouring councils’ cuts and saw that the end was nigh unless she and her team took matters into their own hands. But council funding for KYM’s open-access clubs has fallen each year since austerity kicked in – from £1.6m for universal youth services in 2010 to £860,000 for KYM’s clubs today – and the organisation is struggling to secure new revenue streams. Meanwhile, its council contract ends in 2018.

“It’s a flawed assumption that if youth services were to spin out they would flourish in the open market,” says Richardson. “It’s a really difficult market, and at the end of the day, we’re not businesswomen, we’re youth workers trying to run a business.”

In the last six years, the number of teenagers in Knowsley’s youth services has dropped from 7,000 to fewer than 4,000, in part because funding for KYM’s clubs has fallen. But a spokeswoman for Knowsley council says: “While other councils have had to cut or significantly reduce their youth offering as budget cuts have continued year on year, the creation of KYM has allowed many of these services to continue in Knowsley.”

London’s Lambeth, and Kensington and Chelsea, councils are the only others to mutualise their youth services, with varying early success. Young Lambeth Co-op has raised only £112,000 from outside the council in its first year, but hopes to triple that figure next year through grants, donations, and consultancy. Epic CIC, in west London, has managed to bring in an external income, signing contracts with health groups and landing EU grants, too (although the recent Brexit vote means European funding could be off the table).

The difficulties in spinning out into public service mutuals extend well beyond youth agencies. But to date youth services have seen the least growth in public service mutuals of any sector. Youth workers face an extra hurdle with hard-nosed investors, who often ask to see measurable social outcomes. “We’ve been challenged to show outcomes in the same way as Pfizer would demonstrate the impact of a drug. But it doesn’t work that way – we aren’t producing uniform pills,” says Jon Boagey, associate director of the National Youth Agency, which supports youth work.

Rigorous research on whether youth clubs effectively reduce unemployment, crime and drug use is sparse and out-of-date. Only two major national studies have been carried out, over a decade ago, both by the then Department for Education and Skills, and the conclusions were mixed.

But some experts say such measures don’t capture the value of youth work. “We should really be linking youth services to personal health, family health and wellbeing,” says Batsleer. “With these cuts, there is a big risk of abandonment and neglect, and an entrenchment of deprivation.”

Indeed, in Rotherham, where gangs were found to have sexually exploited 1,400 children between 1997 and 2013, youth workers close to the victims were some of the first to hear of the horrors. The staff then played a pivotal role in uncovering the sweeping scope of abuse that put the perpetrators behind bars. But funding for universal youth work has been slashed in Rotherham in recent years with half of its 22 youth clubs closed and targeted programmes for “at-risk” youth again the main focus. Struggling teenagers who don’t register as vulnerable no longer have youth workers to confide in.

Back in Knowsley, the youth clubs continue to cling on. Cooking classes have gone, as have music courses and dance instructors, and some clubs have reduced their opening hours.

Those who keep coming can sense the threat of closure, and don’t like what awaits them on the other side. “My younger brother hasn’t been coming to the club anymore,” says 17-year-old Georgia Graves, lowering her voice and leaning forward in her chair. “I worry that means he’s going downhill.”