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No Country for Young People

Taj Ali

New research shows that two in three youth centres are on the verge of closure. With youth unemployment also skyrocketing, Britain's government is failing young people – and the consequences are likely to be severe.

Here we go again. Another national lockdown from a government whose shambolic response to the pandemic can only be described as a national embarrassment.

With coronavirus cases rapidly rising, a national lockdown couldn’t come soon enough – but it will, no doubt, be incredibly tough for young people without an adequate support structure in place. We simply do not have the appropriate level of support for those who will be most affected: it’s not so much a question of capability or capacity, but one of neglect from our government – neglect that long precedes the shambolic handling of this particular crisis.

Remote learning has made life particularly difficult for young people, with economic inequality creating a digital divide that renders those from working-class backgrounds much worse off. With youth unemployment alarmingly high and unreliable access to the internet exacerbating the educational attainment gap, urgent state intervention is needed. That intervention has failed to materialise, to the detriment of millions.

My hometown of Luton has been one of the towns hit worst by this pandemic, with the highest number of job losses and the largest increase in benefit claimants between March and May. Since the lockdown in March last year, unemployment in Luton has more than doubled: it now stands at 8.6%. The youth claimant count is 9.4%, an increase of 4.6% since 2013, and one of the largest increases in the country. The child poverty rate stands at 46%.

In areas of high deprivation like mine, youth organisations are a lifeline for vulnerable young people. They provide support with employment, training, and wellbeing. The challenges of repeated lockdowns have therefore been made worse by the inadequate provision of youth services, exacerbated as a result of funding cuts.

The impact of this on young people’s already poor mental health cannot be overstated. Bereavement, loneliness, and fear has led to new conditions and triggered existing ones, and many feel overwhelmed and anxious for the future; economic downturn and the resulting financial hardship for those on low incomes is also detrimental.

Despite these challenges, young people have been resilient in the face of Covid-19. Resilience, however, also depends on wider institutional support, and the youth sector, battered and bruised by a decade of austerity, is struggling to cope.

On Sunday, research by the charity UK Youth revealed that almost two thirds of youth organisations with incomes under £250,000 are at risk of closure, and one third might have to shut in the next six months – leaving 1.5 million young people without critical help.

This funding crisis long precedes the outbreak. Since 2011, we’ve had almost £1 billion of funding cuts to youth services in England and Wales, forcing more than 1000 children centres and 760 youth centres to close. The crisis in the youth sector encapsulates the very real disconnect between the government and working-class communities across the country.

The simple truth is that the current approach to youth services, and public services in general, is clearly not working. Youth work remains an underfunded and neglected policy area, even when needed most. In the absence of sustained structural support, many youth organisations rely on project funding through a grant system which is largely top-down and dependent on central government policy.

During the 2019 General Election, the Conservative Party pledged £500 million for the youth sector – a commitment on which they have so far failed to deliver. The government has also placed increasing restrictions on which youth organisations can access funding, meaning grants will be inaccessible to many organisations even if they are available. For instance, only organisations with accounts of £100,000 and above are able to bid for the youth endowment fund, meaning many newer and smaller organisations miss out.

Ten years of public sector cuts have rendered the youth sector particularly vulnerable to collapse in times of economic crisis. But austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity – and one which has had a devastating impact on the most in need. Youth services have been underfunded, under-staffed, and overstretched for far too long. If we want to lessen the burden of the pandemic on the physical and mental wellbeing of young people, we must demand meaningful and sustainable investment – not just in youth services, but in all public services, nationwide.