Can the Big Society save youth clubs?

Youth club children plays basketball

Sometimes you ask one question and discover a surprising answer to another. I wondered how many of England's youth clubs had closed down after council cuts. But what became clear as I researched the issue was how, all over the country, volunteers and communities were managing to keep services open.

You can try it yourself. Do a simple internet search on "youth club closures" and read the local online newspaper stories.

The first thing you notice is how, just over a year ago, the headlines were about the fury and despair at the closure of services.

Look at stories from this year, and they are about how local people have somehow managed to find the volunteers and the money to reopen the doors of the club or are busy fundraising and organising to do the same.

I found 60 different communities in which services have been saved, and many more where active campaigns have been launched, often with the enthusiastic backing of young people themselves.

In Oxfordshire alone, for instance, 27 youth clubs which lost their council funding have re-opened. The local paper claims the youth clubs' rescue is a vindication of the Big Society.

In Norfolk, where the county council cut almost £4m from youth services, it is a similar story.

I went to a club called The Big H in Hellesdon near Norwich recently and encountered a vibrant and packed youth centre. A year ago, the doors were locked and people wondered if the facility was lost forever.

But 21-year-old Ellie Richards decided she was simply not going to let the club close and began campaigning to get funding and volunteers. "I am not going to lie, it was really hard work," she told me. "But I am so proud of what we have achieved here."

The council has a fund which helps cover the costs of professional support for community-run facilities. At the Hellesdon club, there are people from a Norfolk-based charity Momentum offering advice to Ellie and the other helpers.

Teenagers in Liverpool who set up their own hiking club in 2009 Liverpool teenagers set up their own hiking club

There appear to be two models of delivery in areas where youth clubs are no longer directly provided by the state. In one, such as the Big H, local volunteers are supported by professional expertise. In the other, communities raise money and buy in a professional youth worker.

Again in Norfolk, I met Karen Creed, who was made redundant by the local authority as part of the youth service cuts, but has managed to carve out a freelance career for herself, driving around the county with equipment in the boot of her car.

"I earn about a third of what I did and it is a struggle," she told me. "But with 20% youth unemployment I feel passionately that we must do something for young people in the county."

It is not just Norfolk and Oxfordshire. A survey of youth associations conducted for the BBC by UK Youth reveals similar stories:

  • In Cambridgeshire, out of 100 clubs, two-thirds have managed to find new sources of funding, 80 are in the process of raising money with just nine still closed
  • In Berkshire, out of 80 clubs, some 67 have found new sources of funding with just seven still closed
  • In Warwickshire, 14 clubs closed following cuts, but nine have since reopened and are run by the community
  • In Lincolnshire, 200 clubs are current seeking new sources of funding, with 40 having reopened and now operating independently. Only about 10 have actually closed.

Of course big questions remain about the sustainability of these community-run projects. On the Today programme, Dominic Cotton from UK Youth predicted that "in a year's time many of these community-run clubs will have closed".

Youth clubs 'hanging by a thread'

There are also concerns about the quality of youth services replacing the state-run provision. Some councils have retained control of targeted work with more challenging youngsters.

But if communities are finding the capacity to run youth clubs themselves, then it might be that they actually do a better job than the council once did. It is likely they will be more reflective of the demands of local teenagers and there are potentially big gains in terms of social capital.

In the Norfolk village of Dickleburgh, they are struggling to find volunteers to run the now closed Friday night youth club. It is a small place, and there are few likely candidates.

That said, a committee has been formed, and the young people I met hanging around have been busy raising cash to try and get their club re-opened. If David Cameron's Big Society is about active citizenship then, perversely, cuts to youth services may be inspiring just that.

It is too early to say whether the long-standing tradition of voluntarism in the youth sector will be able to maintain and even improve provision of activities in the face of significant cuts.

But it seems to me that we are in a critical phase. The government's hope is that as the state pulls back, the voluntary and private sectors will move in.

The warnings of widespread closures do not seem to have come to pass - yet. The question is whether the Big Society is a permanent solution or a temporary sticking plaster.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I know former local authority youth centres that can barely open 2 nights a week with 2 staff, little equipment no trips or activities. One, where up to 3 year ago the kids had opportunities to take part in projects in Lapland and Germany is now mostly an auction house where the main role of staff seems to be to stop kids harming each other in the two small rooms left to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


    So will you come and do my lawn then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Local authority run youth projects "grew" many local volunteers to become capable and qualified professionals - it was the Big Society in Action. What is lost now are huge added value initiatives that people with skill, committment and time can offer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    To Jon112dk.
    I feel very sorry for you. People who do things for free usually have great fun and get a much bigger reward than money can buy. Try it sometime.

    Yes I am a mug as I do things for free too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Just a thought, with all these mugs .. sorry, citizens .. willing to work for free ...

    I need to cut my lawn this weekend ... anyone want to pop round and do it for me?

    No pay, working for free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The BS can probably save youth clubs but is that what our young people deserve? Surely they deserve high-quality services that are not just cobbled together by well-meaning volunteers in village halls? Surely they are more worthy than this & need support, guidance and qualified, professional staff who have their learning & development in mind & who don't see young people as a problem for society?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    While bankers get millions. Bosses get 40% pay rises. The number billionaires increases, so so does their individual wealth. Organisers making millions from the olympics.

    Ordinary people suckered into working for free.

    Tories must be doubled up with laughter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I note that none of the 'success' stories relate to inner city youth services or indeed those of large conurbation authorities. What is the position because it is in these areas where there is the greatest need for a full range of professionally provided services and where also the greatest unemployed and NEETS generally live. What is the position, Mark.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Lots of the voluntary activity probably has been going on for years. It complemented the work of local authority Youth Services. Now these examples of good voluntary youth provision is what is left. For fifty there's been some fantastic examples of joint working , sharing resources between statutory and voluntary organisations. Now babies are being thrown out with bathwater; leaving little behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Is it very joined up thinking to close so many youth services not knowing if there is a small army of volunteers ready to step in when presiding over a very large number of 'idle' young people. It is surprising the government have not thought of forcing youth workers back to their jobs in order to keep their JSA and other benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I heard the story on the Today show this morning, and it got me wondering what role hyperlocal publishing has in sustaining services such as youth clubs, resulting in this: - thanks for including more of the named areas and examples, I may look further into this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    11-year-old schoolboy (Big Society Member?) is trying to raise funds to stop Warren, in Hatch Warren, Basingstoke, from shutting. Ryan Dorey, from Beggarwood (How appropriate!) is appealing to companies in Basingstoke to sponsor club. Wise beyond his years, he says: “It’s the only club in the area and if we don’t have it, there will be a rise in anti-social behaviour."

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Shroud waving has a long and distinguished hisotry in this country, results would never be as bad as politically motivated responses would say because some people would do anything to provide this out of personal duty and civic pride for the kids irrespective of the politics. Wealthier areas can readily find the funds or afford fees, of the clubs closed how many were in the poorer areas?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Even now for every success story, there is a unsuccessful story. e.g. Princes Risborough Youth Club desperately needs more volunteers otherwise organisers fear the facility will be lost. Centre was saved after Buckinghamshire County Council withdrew funding. Town Council meeting (Will Streule) said they are getting more than 30 youths a week.
    But youth worker is resigning due to the work load.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    So it is more like The Beg Society and less the Big Society as closing or closed clubs try to find sustained funding for things like rent heating and other costs. What we do not know is what goes on in these clubs & what hours they are available. I do not recall Cameron talking about a policy to close facilities and for low or unpaid volunteers to step in simply so the govt can feel good about it

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Just because volunteers have managed to take on "Youth Services" & keep some youth clubs going, I can't believe this situation will last. People get tired; they are not true professionals; they are not councillors; they are practically-speaking set up for progressive failure.
    The Big society seems to have come down to little people doing their level best to demonstrate their care & commitment.



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