Youth service cuts leave rural young people 'exposed to crime gangs'

Young people on village bench

A lack of funding for rural youth work has left young people exposed to criminal exploitation, a report has said. - Credit: Getty

Young people in rural areas of Norfolk are at greater risk of criminal exploitation from county lines drug gangs because of a lack of youth services, a report has claimed. 

The National Youth Agency (NYA) said provision for children and teenagers living in rural villages and coastal areas was “consistently overlooked” leaving them at risk of loneliness, isolation and poor mental health.

It calls for a government plan to ensure all children and teenagers have access to support regardless of where they live.

PICTURE POSED BY MODEL of a teenage girl showing signs of mental health issues. PA Photo. Picture da

Lack of youth services also leaves rural youths vulnerable to isolation, loneliness and poor mental health. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Leigh Middleton, NYA’s chief executive, said: “We’ve seen a 75pc cut in services and spending in the last 10 years and what money is left is being focussed into areas where it can reach the most young people and that tends to be our cities and towns. 

“The result of that is if you live in a rural area you are isolated and cut off from access to those services and it makes it so much harder.”

Earlier this year YMCA Norfolk launched a campaign and a petition calling on the government to restore youth service funding to 2010 levels.

One consequence of “little or no youth provision” in many rural areas was more young people being exposed to the dangers of crime gangs, the NYA report states, adding: “Youth services can provide a safe space in local communities and trained youth workers.”

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Norfolk County Council has launched a new £1m Targeted Youth Support Service specialist youth service aimed at young people at risk of exploitation in both rural and urban communities.

Charity St Giles has been working with the Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner on projects to prevent youngsters from becoming criminally exploited.

Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Project

Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Project, which has been running Norfolk projects to prevent young people from becoming criminally exploited. - Credit: St Giles

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Junior Smart, founder of the SOS Project at St Giles, said: “Traditionally, youth services would have been able to help prevent young people from falling through the net. However, these services have been decimated – particularly in rural areas and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are being disproportionately affected.  

“This fact – along with the continued threat of county lines exploitation – makes it all the more important that young people are supported, engaged and have a safe space."

The NYA has called for a rural action plan for youth services co-designed with young people and a comprehensive map of youth services and out of school activities in rural areas to be compiled. 

It also wants to see better community transport options, including mini-buses and mobile youth services, and more funding to make better use of community facilities like village halls.

It's report said rural employment prospects and mental-health support access were also a concern.

"I’m quite lucky that both my parents drive to help me access things like clubs and activities, but I know a lot of young people don’t have that opportunity."

Aimee Mathison. Picture: MAP

Aimee Mathison of Breckland Youth Advisory Board. - Credit: MAP

Aimee Mathison, 17, a member of Breckland Youth Advisory Board, said: “Towns like Wymondham and Attleborough have youth groups and clubs but in small rural villages there really isn’t anything. 

“Something that I’ve definitely struggled with is loneliness, especially during lockdown. My mum and dad say I’m addicted to my phone because I am constantly messaging my friends who are mostly in towns and the city. 

“I’m quite lucky that both my parents drive to help me access things like clubs and activities, but I know a lot of young people don’t have that opportunity.

"We have one bus that goes to Watton in the morning and comes back at night.” 

She said the Breckland Youth Advisory Board had struggled to access funds for better provision for young people.

“Every time we have gone to work with town councils it is such a fight just to be able to get a little bit of money to get some youth provision,” she added. 

Norfolk County Council said it supports seven young people-led advisory boards across the county with £740,000 per year to have the “greatest impact and meet the needs of our young people at the right time and in the right place”.

It also funds £300,000 support for young people to engage in education and out of school activities.  

John Fisher, cabinet member for childrens services. Picture: Norfolk County Council

John Fisher, cabinet member for childrens services. Picture: Norfolk County Council - Credit: Archant

John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We are continually improving ways in which we can communicate with young people in rural areas.  

“We know that when young people who are struggling are involved with a positive activity, they do better in other areas of their lives. 

“Getting involved in decision-making and having your voice heard is so important for self-esteem, confidence and wellbeing.”

Mike Smith-Clare, Labour group lead for children and young people, said: “The general underfunding of youth services has already caused a gap in essential support for young people. Unfortunately this is felt even more by those living in rural areas, where a younger generation appear to have been totally forgotten. 

“Our young people need investing in - in order to reach their true potential. It’s appalling that they are constantly being overlooked and unsupported due to false economies.”

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