Words: James Keith
Photography: Simon Wheatley

After the NHS, youth clubs may be one of the most undervalued (and in turn, underfunded) resources this country has to offer. For most, especially young people growing up in council estates and inner cities, the value of youth clubs is obvious. Last year, Skepta opened a music studio inside a youth club in Tottenham, where the local kids can go to nurture their musical talent. Moreover, grime’s history is built on the foundations laid in local youth clubs by titans of UK music like Wiley, Kano, and Dizzee Rascal. “Growing up when grime was brand new,” says Reiss De Bruin, a journalist who grew up going to youth clubs in East London, “it was a talent exchange as much as anything else. Nowadays, kids get given a library card [by Tower Hamlets council], or some vouchers for the cinema, and they’re told to just be happy with that.”

It’s not just music. Youth clubs also perform an even more valuable service: giving hope to working-class kids and a way out of poverty that doesn’t involve crime or violence. The country’s remaining youth clubs are places where local kids can learn skills or get into sport. Boxing, for example, is particularly popular. They’re also places kids can go to make themselves employable, learning new skills and getting connected with jobs. Now that youth clubs up and down the country are closing their doors, prospects for kids are grim and so gun and knife crime has gained more victims. In August alone, four teenagers were fatally stabbed in the UK. Three of them were killed in London. The following month, Ciaran Thapar wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian where he explained his experiences as a youth worker in Brixton. “My experience working at Marcus Lipton,” he says, “has convinced me that community centres are also central to finding a solution. They should be seen as an opportunity to better understand young men and discourage them from picking up knives.”

This isn’t a new problem, though. The problem of youth clubs in London is by no means limited to the capital, and it’s certainly not a promise limited to youth clubs. Between 2010 and 2016, £387million had been cut from youth service spending across the country. Since 2011, London lost £22million in youth funding due to Government cuts to councils. Between 2012 and 2014, according to research by Unison, based on a Freedom of Information request to 168 local authorities, youth services lost more than £60million in funding. In that time, 2,000 jobs were lost in youth services, 350 youth centres closed, and a staggering 41,000 youth service places were lost, with at least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers getting cut. “To think that you can have such huge sprawls of London not covered by any youth clubs is bizarre,” Reiss adds. “It’s the same attitude that’s affected tower blocks,” he continues. “People talk about Grenfell and why that cladding was put there. It was because people didn’t like the look of it. Part of that same kind of social cleansing is what’s eradicating youth clubs.”

“To think that you can have such huge sprawls of London not covered by any youth clubs is bizarre.”

“I feel like it’s a borough by borough case,” says Semothy Jones, music producer and founder of youth organisation Gain CTRL. “You have some local councils that might have other areas they feel they need to focus their budget on, and others that make a real effort and sometimes sacrifice to make an impact on the lives of young people in London. Islington, for example, has made a real effort to keep its focus on youth support healthy—even when they’ve been hit with government funding cuts—but I can’t say every borough is doing the same. Without local support, youth provisions rely on private funding—which can be great, but not easy to obtain. On the bright side, I feel many are starting to realise that the old model of what I refer to as ‘pub training youth work’, where you stick a pool table in a room and let young people just socialise, does not work anymore. Young people are a lot more entrepreneurial and tech-savvy nowadays. The internet has opened the eyes of many young people who, before, might not have been aware of what they can achieve and I feel what is happening is a shift from funding going to hangout centres and being put towards those who can facilitate and develop projects to fit the needs of such bright and creative young people who are otherwise left frustrated and unheard.”

Dylan Richards, who works with Surrey Clubs For Young People, added: “In the increased diversity of culture, these kinds of places are really good for bringing people together from different backgrounds to prevent any lack of education about other people and their backgrounds.” In March 2016, Dylan started working with Surrey Clubs For Young People after they put the word out that they were looking for someone with a musical background to reach out and get kids interested in creating music or art. The group, as with most charitable or benevolent organisations, gathers its funding where it can—an exercise that often take valuable time away from work with young people.

“We’re lucky enough to be funded independently by philanthropists,” he explained. “It’s very much an independently-minded charity, but we do spend a lot of time fundraising. The charity is 70 years old this year and we recently held an event at Parliament for the birthday so we could meet the sorts of people that can make changes. Obviously, we can’t collect money in the House of Parliament but we can make connections. The charity was founded in the House of Commons [1947] and it’s something that has somehow continued to go on despite the ever-decreasing funding.”

But there are still beacons of hope: Double Jab Amateur Boxing Club, for example, recently won an Unsung Heroes Award and were featured in countless spreadsheets. Their efforts to alleviate violent crime in the area (‘jabs not stabs’) has won them awards and plaudits. There’s also City Gateway, a group that acts as both a youth outreach programme and provides courses and skills to young people to help them pursue a career. Then there’s Shadwell Basin, a youth programme that takes kids in day trips and week long holidays to explore go hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and generally enjoy the outdoors. The distances they travel for these trips may not be far, but for some it may as well be the other side of the world.

While it’s easy—and indeed tempting—to reduce the issue(s) down to one factor, i.e. spending cuts, there’s more to it than that. Seemingly, there’s something much more insidious at work. Dizzee’s Raskit album, for all its problems, did feature a very interesting sample of Boris Johnson talking about what a shame it is that working-class Parisians are pushed out to the suburbs to make room for foreign investment and the upper classes. Well, in classic Boris style, he’s shown a fairly typical void of self-awareness because that is EXACTLY what is happening to London.