'It feels like the Cinderella service': Children 'at risk' after county cuts 90pc of youth services funding in a decade
PUBLISHED: 06:00 26 September 2019 | UPDATED: 08:02 27 September 2019
Young people are at greater risk of committing crime or having mental illness because council funds to support them have been slashed by 90pc, experts claim.
Research by the YMCA reveals Norfolk has cut funding by 91.8pc over a decade, from £10.53m to just £865,000 this year - and it is taking its toll.
Tim Sweeting, chief executive of YMCA Norfolk, said: "As young people grow up, they need positive role models who will walk alongside them through all that a modern childhood throws at them, such as social media, mental health and education pressures.
"We see young people without the support they need and instead coming in contact with health or criminal justice systems. This is costly for the life chances of young people and public services as a whole."
The YMCA research into local authority funding for youth services - which included 84 authorities in England - found it had fallen by 69pc between 2010/11 and 2019/20, from almost £1.2bn to £385m.
Norfolk County Council recorded the sixth highest percentage drop in funding.
Dan Mobbs, chief executive of the Mancroft Advice Project (MAP) in Norwich, said existing high levels of inequality for young people in Norfolk had been exacerbated by shrinking budgets.
"Young people tell us there is a lack of things to do and opportunities to take," he said.
"Cuts to services have widened inequalities as poorer families simply can't give the opportunities to their young people wealthier families can - and this is more true in Norfolk than almost anywhere as we have some of the highest levels of inequality in the UK, leading to a lack of social mobility."
Mr Mobbs agreed young people had unfairly felt the impact of cuts made under the austerity programme, but conceded that many local authorities had been left in "impossible" situations in the wake of central government cuts.
He added: "The biggest challenge is the short term nature of projects when what we need is a long term plan. We simply need more investment, but this needs to be localised and consistent."
Mr Mobbs felt Norfolk County Council managed its small budget for youth services well.
He said: "The youth advisory boards are ground-breaking with young people genuinely taking control of the challenges their community faces. This needs celebrating and building on: we need more investment in this to make a bigger impact as well as more targeted support for young people who need it."
Mr Sweeting said organisations like YMCA Norfolk responded to cuts by finding other funders, including parish councils. Its youth clubs now worked with 2,000 young people around the county annually - but Mr Sweeting said cashflow remained tight.
"It is harder to scrape together enough to make it happen - it definitely feels like the Cinderella service," he said.
Nearly 30pc of councils which responded to the YMCA's survey had cut their youth services funding by at least 80pc between 2010/11 and 2019/20.
While Norfolk was above the national average spend of £7.79m per council in 2010/2011, its spending for 2019/20 will only be around a third of the average.
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The vast majority of cuts in the county came in 2011, when councillors made the radical decision to completely decommission its youth service.
This sweeping restructure saw the establishment of youth advisory boards in all the county's districts, which are allocated funding and work closely with young people in their areas to undertake a wide range of projects.
John Fisher, cabinet member for children's services at Norfolk County Council, said funding for Norfolk's YABs and other targeted youth support services had been maintained since the restructure in 2011.
He said: "While funding for direct youth work has changed we still invest significantly in support for young people in Norfolk.
"We are currently working with key partners so that together we can ensure that our resources are having the greatest impact and meeting the needs of our young people at the right time and in the right place.
"Working with the office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and other partners, we have already successfully bid for funding for a detached youth work team, which started work earlier this year."
But Mike Smith-Clare, Labour spokesman for people and communities lead for children and young people at the county council, felt the changes had been sugar-coated.
"It would have been more appropriate if Mr Fisher had used the terms has been cut, decimated and completely neglected," he said.
"There is great grass roots youth work taking place - but sadly this is not happening everywhere and not reaching everyone.
"Young people deserve better, but as we've witnessed through the closure of children's centres, the younger generation sadly doesn't appear high enough on the list of Conservative priorities."
Nationally, the decline in funding for youth services and projects and subsequent closure of many council-funded services has been suggested as a cause of increased anti-social behaviour and criminal activity.
Tim Sweeting from YMCA Norfolk said highlighting issues such as county lines - a real concern for youth services and the police force in Norfolk - had to be followed by action.
"We know dealers are targeting vulnerable young people and giving them a purpose and a sense of belonging that they lack in their lives. "The frustration is that these are precisely the benefits of good youth work and we believe that if more young people were engaged in positive activities with people who know them and care for them, we will see less drawn away into damaging lifestyles," he said.
Dan Mobbs, from MAP, said: "We have increasing challenges with poor mental health and child exploitation [in Norfolk] - especially with issues like county lines. We need community based youth provision to prevent this."
Denise Hatton, chief executive of YMCA England and Wales, said youth services have a "significant role" to play in stopping young people from carrying weapons and falling prey to or getting involved in violent crime.
"Young people need a place to go where they can belong, where they have the opportunity to come together with peers outside of school and develop their personal growth. If they fall into the wrong group, they are unfortunately likely to stay there," she said.