Bernard Davies writes:
Children and Young People Now reported last month that the department nominally responsible for youth work – the one with that tongue-twisting title ‘Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – had agreed grants of up to £10,000 to 144 organisations. The money is to be used to ‘transform’, for example, cafes, a camper van and (?casualties of the government’s wider austerity policies) old libraries into ‘youth clubs, quiet spaces and creative hubs’. Coming with the usual strings attached – that for example they tackle ‘youth loneliness’ in areas defined as ‘the most deprived’ – the organisations receiving it include ones working with young people with disabilities, with young asylum-seekers and in isolated villages and launching ‘turn-up-and-play’ sport activities.
Though clearly unintentionally, the initiative also speaks to what is for me one of the youth work field’s current most testing dilemmas. If the ideological and therefore economic tide were ever to turn – if for example Labour did get into power and fulfil its promise to make local authority Youth Services statutory with ring-fenced funding –what kinds of buildings should we be pressing for to fill the huge gap left by the closure since 2012 of, according Unison’s latest evidence, over 760 youth centres?
Would it be enough, for example, just to demand that – where buildings were still standing – they be re-opened and refurbished? Or should we ride on the back of the Onside programme which, often relying on private sector philanthropy, is developing a network of ‘state-of-the-art’ multi-purpose (and multi-million pound) ‘youth zones’ across the country? Or are there more ‘first principles’ kinds of responses we could and should be seeking?
These questions for me point to two linked challenges. One comes out of some of the longer-term legacies of the 3000 or so ‘Albemarle’ centres opened during the 1960s and into the 1970s following the report’s recommendation that ‘a generous and imaginative building programme is essential’. Shaped, often in detail, by two influential ‘building bulletins’ specially commissioned by the Ministry of Education, they cost at today’s prices around £350 million and, as was widely acknowledged at the time and afterwards, represented a major advance on both past thinking and previous provision.
However – largely open-plan and focused around a coffee-bar – their design catered for just one (albeit important) model of youth work. The centres needed quite large teams of staff to ensure that the young people using them were well served and safe and that the fabric of the buildings was protected. Over time anyway they became expensive to maintain and run. And with limited capacity to respond flexibly to an often culturally as well as geographically mobile youth population, they could find themselves struggling to justify their existence, especially at times of cuts to services.
All of which for me links into the second current challenge: how to treat the gap created by all those closed youth centres, not just as huge deprivation for thousands of young people, but also, as IDYW has suggested more broadly, as an opportunity to re-imagine ‘youth spaces’ which could serve a wider range of youth work practices.
This of course is very far from an original thought. Sixty years ago, almost in passing in its discussion of buildings, the Albemarle report itself posed the question:
Is the general-purpose club the most suitable unit, or is it – with older teenagers at any rate – the small natural group of friends and contemporaries?
Even then and in the decade that followed, reports were appearing on projects labelled, in this country at least, as ‘experimental’ – that is, as pioneering. One, in Hoxton in London, explored how youth work could be provided through an open-door café. Workers on others – for example in Liverpool, Manchester and London – while centrally ‘outreach’ or ‘detached’ in their approaches, all in their different ways also found themselves, as one of the reports put it
…forced to seek out places where they could talk to young people and have the opportunity to develop their relationships with them.
(For this particular project – in an arrangement which would surely be unlikely to be approved today – it was the worker’s flat which provided this space).
Delving back into these histories, however, reminds me – not for the first time – of the need for a ‘youth work buildings strategy’ which is not just focused on providing ‘youth clubs’ but, more open-mindedly and creatively, is responsive to the much more varied ways in which open access youth work can be developed and practised. Such ‘spaces’ – high quality and well equipped, of course – would be designed for flexible short- as well as long-term use; they would be easily and comfortably accessible to young people, including those at the older end of the age range; and they could act as bases both for workers to offer more outgoing activities and relationships and for more young people-led and indeed controlled initiatives.
But there I go again – just dreaming!
By co-incidence, as I was drafting this piece, an article by George Monbiot appeared in the Guardian describing a new initiative in ‘the most deprived borough in London’ – Barking and Dagenham. Partly funded by the council, ‘Every One, Every Day’ is seeking ‘to move from paternalism to participation’ by ‘foster(ing) simple projects that immediately improve people’s lives’ – including for example using high street shops as ‘places where people meet, discuss ideas and launch projects’.
In the article young people get just one mention – in a comment by a local woman who, until the project started, said she’d felt afraid of local people, ‘especially the young hoodies’.
Bernard Davies’s book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England is published by Palgrave MacMillan and is launched at the IDYW conference on 22nd March.