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Youth Services

July 10, 2008 12:00 AM
By Peter Black in Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services

I want to start by acknowledging the good work that is already going on around Wales by local Councils and young people's partnerships, in providing vital services for youngsters. This work helps to promote crime prevention, working across disciplines and within communities, it provides mentoring and positive role models, youth forums and play facilities, working in schools and promoting the involvement of children and young people in community regeneration.

I'm going to talk, at least in part, about a piece of legislation that I submitted to the National Assembly for Wales that would have given local Councils a statutory duty to provide facilities for young people. This proposal was meant to supplement the fantastic work already going on in the youth sector in Wales by different organisations, many of whom are represented here, and not try to alter their roles in the sector.

But we cannot pretend that there is not a problem. The simple fact is that in many communities there are absolutely no dedicated facilities for young people. In many other communities there are some but they are insufficient. This is not good enough.

The problem is that local authorities have had to tighten their purse strings. The below inflation Local Government Settlement granted by the Welsh Assembly Government amounted to a real terms cut in funding.. As ever one of the first services to be cut is youth services.

How many communities have seen their play facilities removed because of a lack of maintenance? How many local authorities have had to reduced the number of days a youth centre is open? Councils are not going to cut political priorities such as roads and social services, nor are they able to axe services that they have a statutory duty to provide. If young people voted in the numbers that the elderly do, I have no doubt that we would have a significantly greater number of youth centres in Wales. Maybe another reason to give votes to sixteen year olds?

The voiceless minority of under eighteens, along with those whose voice is seldom heard have been painted into a corner by those who seek to misrepresent them. It has reached the point now where a simple type of jumper, 'the hoody', has become an embodiment of an entire youth counter culture. Every teenager in a hooded jumper that sits in a way that can perhaps be perceived as aggressive is now not simply a bored teenager but in the minds of some papers a criminal who needs to be dealt with.

That is not to say that there are not those who are on the wrong side of the law. We cannot act as if there is no problem in our society. In some cities such as London we have seen many young people lose their lives because of violence.

As a Councillor and as an Assembly Member my postbag is regularly full of complaints from local residents who are concerned about the actions of young people in their communities. Whether it is just noise or gathering on street corners, or a problem with graffiti or intimidation, it is something that causes a great deal of concern for many older people. In many cases there is a problem and that needs to be tackled but the solution is more often one of providing a place for these young people to go rather than taking punitive measures against them.

Often the victim of a crime is in fact another youth who is just as innocent as any other citizen of this country. The vast majority of young people in Wales are law abiding and community conscious, however, they are still the most likely to become a victim of violent crime.

The UK Government seeks to demonise these young people. Home Office statistical bulletins, for example, list a series of anti-social behaviour indicators, including abandoned or burnt-out cars, people being drunk or rowdy in public places, using or dealing drugs and vandalism, graffiti and other deliberate damage to property. I think that we would all agree that these amount to anti-social behaviour. However, I am not so sure whether, in the majority of cases, a teenager hanging around on the streets fall into the same class, yet it is listed here.

Young people do not gather in parks and bus stops for fun. They gather as it is simply a place to go. You cannot expect people to stay in their houses all day, every day. None of us would do that. Older people go to pubs and restaurants, but these cost money. Where do you go if you have no income of your own but still want to get out and socialise?

This is where the need for local authorities to provide facilities comes from. The problem though is that because very little of this provision is statutory it is often put in as an afterthought or because a person or group has fought hard for it and taken matters into their own hands.

There is no statutory duty on local authorities to provide sporting facilities or leisure centres. Each local authority determines what level of provision that they want to provide and there are significant differences between authorities. My proposal was never to impose a standard level of youth services across Wales. Each local authority area has unique needs and pressures. However, at a minimum, there should be a requirement on local councils to consult with young people and systematically plan and deliver services across their area to meet the needs of each community.

Recently, a large proportion of Assembly time has been devoted to the value of play in helping three to seven year olds learn as part of the foundation phase. The same applies to teenagers and those in their early 20s as well. Youth provision does not have to be structured around education opportunities, nor does it have to be organised leisure time. Many young people would run a mile from such services.

Young people need to be treated with respect and trusted to fill their own leisure time. In my view, it is the role of the statutory authorities to provide facilities to enable them to fulfil their potential and so enable them to learn how to interact with others and to take responsibility for their own lives.

A recent report commissioned jointly by South Wales Police and the Children's Commissioner for Wales identified the benefits of a more universal youth provision as providing positive things for young people to do. This can include increasing confidence and competence among marginalised children and young people, the greater involvement of young people and other local residents in positive community-based activity, the better co-ordination of specialist services for children and young people, and improvements to the physical environment and provision of opportunities for economic regeneration, the report stated that:

"Whist recognising the many positive initiatives that are being taken forward in South Wales…there is a feeling amongst many practitioners that much more could be achieved. For example, what benefits would be derived from services being ale to better co-ordinate or integrate the diverse range of activity that is currently available? Is it possible to look at all of the statutory, private, voluntary and community group activity with and for young people and develop a more holistic approach? A model that offers a broad menu of services and support, involves young people in improving the communities in which they live; and which involves service providers working in collaboration rather than in competition."

This vision is one that we should all be working towards.

One of the best examples of the sort of provision that I believe is beneficial is the KPC youth centre in Pyle, in Bridgend. This facility could act as an exemplar of good practice to local authorities up and down the country, yet KPC youth centre is not operated by a council but is run on a completely voluntary basis. The facility was started by Helena Parobij after her 18 year old son died of a drug overdose.

Her vision was for a youth centre that would provide an opportunity for young people to escape the kind of boredom that might cause anti-social behaviour, petty crime or drug use. When setting up the facility, Helena asked local youngsters what kind of facilities they wanted and the result is a state-of-the-art centre with a music and dance studio, a computer suite, pool and table tennis tables, drop-in café, information centre, all-weather pitch, BMX course, skateboard park and much more. It has 750 18-25 year-olds on its books from many surrounding communities. Agencies such as the police are fully engaged and, the last time that I spoke to them, there were plans to set-up a social enterprise there to ease the path of local youngsters into employment. The big issue for the centre has been the lack of core funding. It is now on its third three-year lottery grant and raises money from a host of other events and donations.

If you talk to young people in other communities, they will tell you that there are very few things for teenagers to do or places to go. They want more after-school facilities, music facilities and drama groups, youth clubs, better facilities and much more. They would like a centre like the KPC youth centre or something similar. Where we do not have that provision we are failing young people and we are failing the communities in which they live.

There is another good facility in my region in Gilfach Goch, built with grant money but sustaining a number of social enterprises. Because revenue streams are so uncertain both facilities feel the need to find other income to remain open. They have joined the merry go round of grant applications and the sort of insecurity that threatens the work that they do. That is something that in an ideal world we need to tackle.

Facilities need not be expensive. By redeveloping our current infrastructure and making better use of public buildings it is possible to give young people the place to go that many of them are looking for.

In England the Quirk Review concluded that transferring public assets to community ownership and management could have significant public benefits. As a result of this review the UK Government are making £30 million available to help the transfer of underused public buildings to community use. A scheme such as this one in Wales in conjunction with the measure would allow communities to take action to help their own young people and help local authorities identify and use buildings that are not currently meeting their full potential.

I am not saying that the Welsh Assembly Government should seek to emulate England and it may be the case that this is not a route that we feel it is necessary to go down, but there is no doubt that there are suitable buildings that are not used nearly as much as their potential to become the hub of a community would allow that could be redeveloped.

It will be for each local authority to determine how best to channel resources to produce the most effective youth services provision. In some areas, yes, that will mean building new centres from scratch (potentially large capital costs). But in other areas, it may be that other existing community buildings owned by the local authority can be brought back into use, clearly reducing the cost for the council.

In other communities, especially remote areas, it might be more appropriate for the council to purchase minibuses to transport young people to a different area where facilities are already in place - meaning that one youth centre might be able to serve several different communities.

In areas where there is already good local authority provision, there are different approaches the authority can take - such as offering additional discounts for leisure facilities that the council already runs. In some places, an existing youth centre might just need to employ an additional member of staff in order to make it function properly. An investment in outreach youth workers can reap dividends in reconciling disaffected young people with their community.

Unfortunately the current situation is that in many places youth clubs open only one or two days a week as the current youth worker has to run other clubs in different parts of town or another village. When the facility is only accessible on certain days a week then it leaves a problem for young people on facilities are available on those other days. Finding volunteers is difficult. When they do come forward they face many pressures and often burn out.

One local authority that is doing well with youth service provision is Pembrokeshire. They employ thirty full time youth workers, with one in every secondary school. There are also a further sixty part time youth workers. There are twenty different youth clubs in Pembrokeshire. A total of 3,500 use the services provided by the Local Authority.

But the problem is that this is not the case everywhere. Estyn's Annual Report stated that "there are still significant shortcomings in the strategic planning and quality assurance of youth support services" across all parts of Wales.

Pembrokeshire is working hard and I congratulate them on what they have achieved. However Pembrokeshire is geographically large and many communities are small and relatively remote. Young people living in small villages that may be miles away from towns are going to experience a gap in provision, even in one of our better local authorities. That is why transport needs to be included as a part of any holistic approach to youth provision.

I believe that there is a general consensus in Welsh politics that we need to do something about the facilities available for young people in our local communities. Unfortunately this consensus does not stretch as far as agreeing on what we have to do. We are in a situation where this subject is talked about regularly but instead of taking an approach of what can be done about it, we instead look at what obstacles we face. For too long Welsh politicians have talked about making provision for young people but have found reasons not to do it, instead we must find reasons, the means, the will and the determination to put those facilities in place and provide what is needed.

I have had meetings with the Welsh Local Government Association and the Children's Commissioner for Wales and both have expressed their support, in principle, for a statutory duty on local authorities. Local Government's concern is based on the issue of resources. The Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, Jane Hutt, has indicated that additional resources will be made available over the next few years. If properly directed these resources could start to make a difference, especially when used in tandem with the resources of the voluntary sector and local authorities. This sort of partnership with grant organisations could mean that the value of the resources could increase exponentially and we could see some significant provision in place in communities around Wales.

The Government must also be on board. More financial support needs to be available to organisations that work in the youth sector as well as grants to allow local authorities to deliver larger youth projects in the same vein as the KPC Youth Centre. At present approximately £4000 is spent on formal education per pupil, compared to only £56 per pupil on activities outside of this, despite pupils spending around 51 minutes per waking hour outside of formal lessons compared to just 9 minutes in them. That is less than 2% of the funding going to 5/6ths of a young person's time. Education is not just about Maths, English and Science, but also how to be a functioning and valuable member of society. Helping young people find their feet in social situations and prioritise their own free time is just as valuable.

The Minister has indicated her support for the aim of the proposal that I made. She has thanked me for highlighting the issue of patchy provision and for presenting a workable solution to the problem. However, to secure the kind of services that I have talked about today we require more than just warm words. I do not share the Minister's view that this can be achieved by revising existing guidance. However I welcome her commitment to taking up this cause. We have had guidance in place before, such as 'extending entitlement' and it has not proved to be effective.

Politicians are not the best people to take all decisions. Those who work with young people, and more importantly young people themselves, know what is needed and how best it is provided. Our job is to listen and to facilitate.

Young people have a right to enjoy their free time, government should have a duty to provide them with the means to do this. My proposal to make this a statutory duty is one method of providing this. I will continue to fight for change. In the mean time it is up to those who are in the youth sector to make sure their voices are heard and to ensure that young people know that they need to make themselves heard.

I thank you for allowing me to address this conference.