The Government’s laughing gas ban and other crackdowns on anti-social behaviour will be meaningless if youth services aren’t restored, ministers have been warned.
A new strategy to tackle anti-social behaviour was unveiled last week that included the criminalisation of laughing gas, a measure Home Secretary Suella Braverman said would tackle “hordes of youths loitering in and littering parks”.
An additional £160m was pledged to bolster policing and expedite the punishment of offenders, but extra funding for youth services was absent, with the plan referring solely to pre-existing sources of spending.
A report published in February by the world’s leading youth charity, YMCA, found that council funding for youth services has fallen by 73 per cent fall since 2010 in real-terms – from £1.4bn to £392m – resulting in the closure of at least 750 centres.
The YMCA told i that the funding of services for young people must be restored to pre-austerity levels or crime will continue to rise.
David Bridson, head of campaigns and research at YMCA England & Wales, which operates 116 youth centres, said: “One of the reasons attributed to the rise in youth crime, such as anti-social behaviour, is the decimation of youth services.
“In no service area would you see a sustained cut of 73 per cent and not see the effects of this on young people and our communities.
“We find local authorities are having to make really difficult decisions. They are having to prioritise emergency services such as children’s social care or safeguarding over providing funding for youth services.
“To make a real difference, we need to see a restoring of the 73 per cent cuts to youth services, so that every young person has access to the transformative impact they have.”
Local authorities faced a £15bn real-terms reduction to core government funding between 2010 and 2020, from £41bn to £26bn, according to the Institute for Government.
To protect frontline services, councils diverted resources away from other areas – particularly youth services.
Mr Bridson added: “For YMCAs there has been such an erosion of youth services funding to the bone – there is no fat left to cut – meaning that unless sustainable long-term funding is delivered, even more services are at risk.”
The fight to save one youth centre
Wanstead Youth Centre is facing closure by Redbridge Council due to concerns over the long-term safety of the building.
The north east London council, which owns the centre, says it cannot afford renovation works costing about £2.5m.
Locals created the Save Our Wanstead Youth Centre Campaign Group in February, launching a petition that was signed 4,000 times.
Kate Sloan, a 37-year-old mother who is part of the campaign, said the centre’s closure would be a “massive loss” to young people, leaving them without somewhere to “channel their energy”.
She told i: “It’s an important space for kids to go to feel safe. It’s an environment where they can channel their energy into cricket, gymnastics, or whatever else.
“There are other parts of the borough where anti-social behaviour may be more of a problem, but Wanstead definitely isn’t exempt.
“A lot of young people don’t feel safe themselves. The centre gives them somewhere to go so they don’t become victims.”
She added: “We’ve had people contact us whose children have been victims of knife crime expressing their concern, telling us how important it is.”
The centre – which includes a gym, sports hall and theatre – is used by 1,200 people a week, campaigners say.
It offers activities for all ages, including baby classes, which Ms Sloan, who is on maternity leave, attends with her one-year-old daughter.
Redbridge Council hires the facilities out to private operators, although it says it subsidises organisations renting the centre at a cost of £86,000 a year.
Campaigners are calling for the council delay the closure of the building, allowing its leisure partner, Vision, which runs the centre, to “meaningfully consult with the community” about its future and look for other sources of funding.
Ms Sloan said: “Like all local authorities, Redbridge’s budget has been smashed by austerity – we understand that – but there are other solutions we think could be explored.”
As part of its policy reveal, the Government said £90m was allocated to 43 youth centres across the UK for the building or renovation of facilities from the Youth Investment Fund.
The Youth Investment Fund was first announced in 2019 by then-chancellor Sajid Javid to provide £500m of capital spending for youth centres.
Having sat untouched for years, it was quietly cut back to about £380m in 2022, before another £30m was returned to the Treasury as part of its latest spending review this year, Civil Society News reported, leaving the fund at £350m.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan also pledged £11m to fund an extra one million hours of youth service provision in problem areas.
This funding again came from the pre-existing Youth Investment Fund, Mr Bridson said, although he approved of the decision to divert funds from capital projects to revenue spending.
He said: “This money isn’t new, however, we do welcome the refocusing of funding away from building physical buildings and instead into providing services and programmes for young people.
“There is a real lack of funding for revenue to deliver programmes for young people. The focus over the years has simply been to just build new youth centres, which becomes a challenge when there is not continuation funding to sustain them.
“For us to really tackle this problem we need long-term, sustainable funding for universal youth services, which is currently lacking.”
He added: “We must think of youth services as the solution to many issues, not just anti-social behaviour – if you invest in youth services you not only see stronger communities and a sense of belonging but less strain on other vital services such as the NHS.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Every young person, no matter where they’re from, deserves to get the best start in life.
“The Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan will fund one million more hours of support for young people in areas where anti-social behaviour is worst.
“This builds on the National Youth Guarantee which is investing £500m to provide high-quality, local youth services so that by 2025, every young person will have access to regular clubs and activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer.”