Are children in the West Midlands paying the price for youth funding cuts?

The cake sale raised £350 in just two hours. A firm of estate agents chipped in with £400.

A cake sale to raise funds for Bridgnorth Youth Club
A cake sale to raise funds for Bridgnorth Youth Club

A crowdfunding appeal saved Bridgnorth youth centre from closure last year. The campaign raised £12,000, enough to secure its future until April this year, and Councillor Julia Buckley, who led the appeal, says the centre's future now looks more secure.

"The council didn't want to use taxpayers' money to keep the centre open, but the people of Bridgnorth showed that they were willing to pay to keep this service open," she says.

A new report by the YMCA shows the West Midlands has been affected worse than any other region by cuts to youth services. Over the past decade, real-terms spending-per-child has fallen by an average of 88 per cent in the region, with even the best-funded authorities seeing spending fall by more than 70 per cent.

Shropshire is one of the worst affected areas, seeing its youth budgets cut by 92 per cent to just £14.07 per child. But at least it does better than Walsall, where funding has seen a 96 per cent increase to £9.55 per child. Staffordshire fares only slightly better, having seen a 90 per cent fall over the past decade. But in Worcestershire the cut has been 100 per cent. That's right. Spending on youth services in the county has been cut to zero.

The charity says the cuts have left youth service providers in a permanent "survival mode" in case their funding is squeezed still further, or worst of all, dries up entirely.

Chief Constable Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands Police, has also voiced concerns that cuts to youth services could be feeding through in crime rates.

He previously said: “There are less people out in the community as youth workers now, keeping eyes and ears out on young people so we’re sometimes finding young people come to our attention that in the past perhaps a youth worker might have spotted them coming off the rails and then they’re with us.

“Those preventative, protective services have borne a heavy cuts burden, more than policing has, and I think that has to be looked at as part as the strategy for prevention. The police will not solve why young people behave violently –they behave violently before they come into contact with us.”

Wolverhampton is the best-funded authority in the area, spending £63.30 per child aged five-to-17 during the 2020/21 financial year. The city was the 47th best-funded out of 167 authorities in England and Wales, but still saw a 72 per cent cut over the past decade.

Sandwell, spending £58.99 per head, and Telford & Wrekin, at £54.64 per head, also came in the top half of the table, at 55th and 63rd places respectively, but both still saw a 71 per cent decrease over the past 10 years.

In Dudley, spending has fallen by 81 per cent to £32.88 per child, putting the authority well into the bottom half of the table, in 106th place. Staffordshire and the area covered by Shropshire Council fare even worse, coming in 153rd and 154th place respectively. Funding in Staffordshire has fallen by 90 per cent to just £14.07 per child, while in the Shropshire Council area it is down 92 per cent to £12.96 per child.

The YMCA is calling for more funds to be made available for youth services

Councillor Tim Wilson, cabinet member for children’s services at Walsall Council, says the Conservative-run authority is committed to looking for fresh sources of funding to improve services available to young people.

"The council continues to work collaboratively with children, young people, their families and providers such as local youth organisations, to secure funding and grants to build the offer for young people in the borough," he says, citing the example of the holiday activity and food programme as an example of the authority successfully working with more than 50 local providers.

"This example of partnership working offers opportunities for learning and skills development as well as access to a range of activities for eligible families during the school holidays,” he adds.

The YMCA report accuses the Government of "gutting" funding for youth services over the past decade.

"Although many public services too were on the receiving end of cuts as a result of austerity-led economic policies in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis, the hit to youth services has been particularly deep," says the report.

"Young people have spent two years adjusting to periods of staying at home, limited spaces for social mixing outside of school and with a host of worries a generation has not had to face before.

"Youth services provide a place where young people can explore their interests, be with friends and grow in a supportive environment. Providing these services is essential, but the funding to do so has crumbled away at best and depleted entirely in some areas."

Councillor Julia Buckley

Councillor Buckley, who is leader of the Labour group on Shropshire Council, has tabled a motion calling for a change to the Conservative-run authority's policy of targeting children in deprived areas or at risk from being lured into gangs, rather than funding youth centres such as the one in Bridgnorth.

"Rather than preventing kids from getting involved with gangs, they are choosing to work with them when they do get in trouble," she says.

But Councillor Kirstie Hurst-Knight, Shropshire Council's cabinet member for children's services, says youth workers out on the streets are better equipped to target young people who might not go to a council-run youth club.

"It is important to provide universally available open-access youth clubs which have been commissioned by town and parish councils, but also to go beyond buildings and provide a more bespoke offer to young people, where young people naturally gather," she says.

"These young people are often more vulnerable to risks such as exploitation, substance misuse, mental health issues, crime and anti-social behaviour and school exclusions."

Councillor Kirstie Hurst-Knight

Councillor Hurst-Knight says the council is also working with the voluntary and community organisations which are able to provide sports and physical activities.

The YMCA report says the cuts were deepest in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and have softened in recent years.

"However, after year-on-year budget-curtailing, there arguably is little money left to take much more away from."

There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The Government has now released the first £10 million tranche of its long-awaited £500 million Youth Investment Fund to the council wards in England deemed most in need.

"YMCA is glad to see this vital injection to services stripped back over the past 10 years," says the report.

But it warned that this initial funding could only be spent on capital projects, and by the end of next month.

"Youth services desperately need sustainable revenue funding to deliver, with understanding from government on the necessity of the sector in young people’s development."

Denise Hatton, chief executive of YMCA England & Wales, said: "In addition to a decade of funding failures, young people have spent the past two years adjusting to periods of staying at home, limited social interaction, education anxieties, and a whole host of worries like no generation before.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport says the Government recognises the importance of youth services.

"We are investing £560 million through our National Youth Guarantee to give every young person access to regular out of school activities, adventures away from home and volunteering opportunities," she says.

"Youth services in the most deprived parts of England can apply to build or refurbish their facilities through the £368 million Youth Investment Fund, we are investing £171 million to improve young people's life skills through the National Citizen Service, and supporting The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme to reach every secondary school in the country.”

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