On the evening of 27 September 2012, I spent the evening with a group of young people from Lambeth Youth Council discussing how best to target resources from the Lambeth Youth Mayor’s fund to help steer young people into positive activities. The group included the outgoing Lambeth Youth Mayor David Oyedele, who like me grew up on the Southwyck House estate in Brixton. David, like a number of young teenage boys, could pass for a young 21 year old even though he was only 17. David and some of the members of the group said one of their main concerns was the lack of activities for them in the local area, and how easy it was for young people to get lured into the traps of following the wrong crowd.
Growing up in Brixton I saw a different side to some of the people who unfortunately got caught up on the wrong side of the law. They were the boys and girls I spent my weekends with at the local adventure playground near Loughborough Park and Slade Gardens, the children who were sometimes on permeant exclusion from school for reasons including disrupting the other students; problems associated with dyslexia or learning difficulties which were unfortunately not picked up by teachers; or multiple social and domestic factors including the fact that some of these children lived in chaotic homes and witnessed domestic violence on an almost daily basis. It would be hard for any child to concentrate in class with all these external factors.
Later that evening, on 27 September 2012, I received a text message from one of the young people informing me that her friend had been stabbed on the Loughborough estate. The victim was a young, popular and promising footballer Junior Nkwelle. The awful sight of the blue tent on the small green space near the estate that evening took me back to the discussion with the Youth Council members, only a few hours earlier. The police on site were helpful in reassuring the community that evening, but it was distressing to witness a number of young people and their families mourning yet another young life taken so tragically as a result of violent youth crime.
The parents and other adults standing outside the estate with me commented on the fact there was no youth provision for young people on the estate after school hours. The local youth club, Marcus Lipton, stood less than 200 yards from the incident site. I felt a sense of sadness that as a council we just did not have the resources to keep the centre open for longer, due to the reduction in funding we faced as a direct result of the government.
Youth work is not viewed as a statutory provision and years of under investment has led to a Cinderella service or no service in a number of local authorities. We recognise the value of youth work in Lambeth and prior to the cuts from central government, we were able to fund our youth service from other council budgets. Youth work and youth provision needs to be a higher political priority with youth workers recognised for the important role they play.
The term ‘hard to reach’ drives me mad. These young people are not hard to reach, I believe it is the methods we are using to try to reach them that need to change. The majority of youth workers have connections to their local area working with voluntary or community groups and demonstrating a passion for helping young people develop their skills, challenging them, helping them explore their identity and promoting their achievements.
Chuka Umunna’s recent digital debate on gangs and youth violence, #StopYouthViolence, echoed these views with a number of participants recommending bringing back youth clubs and the value of youth workers.
Across London cuts in the policing budget and the threat of the loss of all police community support officer’s is a danger that Londoners cannot afford. Since 2010 Southwark has lost 197 police officers and Lambeth has suffered from a loss of more than 210 police officers. A number of police counters and stations have also closed as a result of Boris’s cuts. We need a Labour mayor committed to working with local groups and councils to address prevention, invest in vital community work and increase powers for enforcement to catch some of the most prolific offenders.
Florence Eshalomi is the London assembly candidate for Lambeth and Southwark
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