What happened to youth centres? The history of youth work as government pledges a mini revival

Many centres are only open for one night a week 

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Austerity killed youth services. The collapse of youth centres was almost overnight after the 2008 financial crash saw a rapid withdrawal of funds from these services as part of the then government’s austerity measures. Eventually, centres were located sparsely throughout the city, and could only afford to open one day a week. 

The YCMA 2022 report revealed massive cuts to youth services across England and Wales. Between 2020 and 2021, local authorities in England spent an estimated £379 million in real terms on youth services, representing a £1.1 billion cut over the past 10 years in comparison to 2010’s £1.48 billion spend. While in Wales, local authorities spent £37.7 million on youth services between 2020 and 2021, which represented a 31% real-terms decrease from £54.5 million ten years prior to this. 

However, the government announced in March this year that through the Youth Investment Fund, over £90 million will be given to 43 youth centres, which will aim to help roughly 45,000 young people to have access to facilities and activities. This is coming from the fund’s overall total of over £300 million. The aim is to have 300 youth centres built and refurbished over the next three areas where the need is high but the existing provision is low by 2025.

With the current need, the scheme is moving rapidly with the Youth Investment Fund currently taking applications for the main programme until midnight 1 June. Their aim is that projects will be completed by March 2025. So with the new injection of cash, we looked into the fall of youth centres and what the future may look like for youth services. 

What happened to youth centres?

Ed Wright is a youth worker for Birmingham Association of Youth Clubs and manages a youth centre oriented towards young people identifying as LGBTQ+. In the decline of youth work, Wright told NationalWorld that Birmingham was lucky, as the city has managed to keep some centres open and keep some staff employed, but funding for generic Open access youth services were the most hard hit. 

I found somewhere in a youth centre that believed in me and gave me an alternative platform

Ed Wright, youth worker

Open access youth work is provided for any young person regardless of their background and is available seven nights a week. However, many centres are open only one night a week. Wright mentioned he used youth services himself when he was younger. He said he “never got on massively at school and was not hugely academic. I found somewhere in a youth centre that believed in me and gave me an alternative platform away from the academic element of school, where I could be myself, learn new skills and meet new people.” 

Wright believes that open access has suffered, and whilst there are still “some really good examples out there”, it's been hard to keep going with the closures and redundancy of staff. In fact, he revealed Birmingham, up until recently, had a recruitment ban on youth workers. He explained the ban came about because local authorities had “massive” financial reductions, and the way that is dealt with is via circulation of staff as opposed to bringing in new staff. 

Many centres are only open for one night a week Many centres are only open for one night a week 
Many centres are only open for one night a week 

Youth services impact 

Wright’s youth centre reaches LGBTQ+ in the local area and acts as a safe place for people who identify as LGBTQ+. He says the centre is “really important for these young people because sometimes they might be the only person who identifies in their class, and it's important they have a safe space”, adding: “The young people here benefit from the fact they can be themselves in the space amongst other people and they can express themselves freely.” 

The centre is situated in South Birmingham, which means young people wanting to use the centre may have to travel across the city, and if they cannot afford public transport costs or have someone who can drop them off then they miss out. Wright says opening more local provisions would help benefit young people in this situation. 

Youth work is life-changing and sometimes even life-saving

Jacob Diggle, UK Youth

Speaking to NationalWorld, Jacob Diggle, director of strategy, research and performance at UK Youth said that is a “scary time to be a young person” as they are navigating through a mental health crisis, a lack of employment prospects and opportunities and a lack of physical safety. “Youth work is life-changing and sometimes even life-saving”. 

Research by the charity found that all young people benefit from youth work. Diggle explains that having someone who is not a parent and not a teacher on their side can have a “profound impact”. 

“Everybody needs somebody who's on their side who's not a parent, and who's not a teacher. The kind of trusting relationship that gets built between a youth worker and a young person genuinely can be life-saving,” he says. 

With the decline of services, young people have to find alternative means of spending their time. Antisocial behaviour is largely focused on young people hanging out in parks on the street, and when you close a safe space like a youth centre then where do young people who live in overcrowded homes, or who don’t have the money to pay for other activities go? 

Both Diggle and Wright say the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a digital shift in youth work, accentuated how important having a physical space for young people really is. Diggle says one of the biggest wants people had was to have face-to-face interactions back, as people were feeling isolated in their digital bubbles. However, funding is still needed for training workers to help manage the digital realm and make it a safe area for young people to navigate.

Wright agrees and says online, whilst it can add value, does not replace face-to-face centres. He said: “When we were allowed to meet back after Covid indoors there was definitely an appetite to get away from Facebook groups.” However, he does acknowledge that technology is still important in terms of keeping in touch with people and signposting. 

Youth Investment Fund 

For people working in youth services, the Youth Investment Fund is a string of hope. Diggle says the fund is “really welcomed” and will be able to provide much-needed money to build new centres and restore some buildings which have been neglected. But the money only focuses on the buildings. 

He explains that the funding does not go on the people who deliver the services within the buildings - meaning whilst there are buildings for young people to go to, there is no sustainable funding for the youth workers to provide any services within them. Diggle says: “It's great to see the government recognising the vital role youth work plays in supporting young people. But the money is a few million pounds. When you look at what funding has been cut from new services over the last 10 years, you're talking about billions of pounds, so it really is a drop in the ocean.”

He also states that: “It isn't just about government money. We need to show that businesses recognise the importance of investing in their communities and in their future workforce.” But this stretches further, to work with teachers, doctors, counsellors, social workers and people within the criminal justice system who work with young people to foster a system of support.