03 November 2016
At the end of October, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched his ‘statement of intent’ consultation document – A City for All Londoners . Having had some time to digest the document, and discuss it with others working with young people in London, it feels like there is much to commend about the direction the new Mayor wants to take – and a clear vision in this time of post-Brexit uncertainty is to be welcomed. But the ensuing consultation period will be very important in terms of firming up the detail of the plan, as the vision currently leaves some questions unanswered as far as young people are concerned.
Acknowledging the challenges the capital faces – as well as economic uncertainty, he lists inequality and rapid population growth – the Mayor nevertheless manages to create an optimistic vision: his opening statement is peppered with positives, around equality, integration, openness and dynamism. He does his best to link the fundamentals: committing to more housing, but at the same time recognising the need for better ‘social infrastructure’.
The young people and youth workers within London Youth’s network will cautiously welcome this broader thinking. While housing is a huge challenge for young Londoners, the lack of broader provision, particularly in areas of population growth, is just as significant. The real challenges to young people – who are most at risk of being victims of crime; who still suffer higher unemployment than other groups; and despite the positive energy and aspiration of most young Londoners, include high numbers who are more likely to suffer mental or physical health problems – need some more attention and resourcing.
In this context, it is encouraging to see in the plan a commitment to supporting the provision of places where people can come together in communities. Youth organisations have been providing this function for many years, giving children access to positive opportunities outside school, supported by adult staff and volunteers in a safe space where their parents or carers can trust they will be looked after.
Yet the spaces themselves are not enough. Youth workers are desperate to be positive and are committed to helping young people – but they do need more investment and acknowledgement. Listening recently to youth workers at a forum on tackling youth violence, it was clear that some of the tensions which are inevitable when traumatised people are given limited support were playing out within and around communities, putting children and adults at risk.
While the Mayor has promised more action on knife crime, and encouragingly at his recent Knife Crime Summit signalled the importance of communities and youth work to this, is still not clear where the resources will come from – nor whether other agencies like the police or social services will be effectively joined-up in response.
It is great that there is a specific section in the Mayor’s statement focusing on young people. But slightly frustratingly, it talks solely about schools. That’s not to say that school isn’t important – the success of education in London has been hugely positive, and contributed to the city’s dynamism in recent years and needs to be sustained. But young Londoners – who make up around a quarter of the population – also spend most of their time outside the school gates.
During the recent half term school holidays, youth organisations were still open, offering opportunities for young people to do something positive: they could choose dance masterclasses in Barking; fencing in Hendon; table tennis in Mile End; football in Shoreditch or any number of other activities in other places. As well as being great for children, this is a vital supports service for parents.
The frustration is that funds are limited and so many children still miss out. It is estimated over half a million children live in poverty in the capital. Yet in some London boroughs only a handful of youth organisations remain, so only a small proportion of these young people get the chance to access and benefit from what their local communities have to offer.
And it isn’t just the fact that they miss out on fun experiences: many clubs will try and offer food, so that young people get at least one healthy meal in the day. If you are on free school meals, then eating in the holidays is a huge issue. And of course they get to try new things, build their confidence, get along with each other, so when they return to school they can be more positive and ready to take on what is asked of them.
The challenge for the Mayor is, of course, where to start. While we may want to see him offering more for young people, there will be others asking for more detail on his plans for those with disabilities, or the elderly, or BAME communities. He will be finding out the reality that sometimes being a Mayor for all Londoners makes it hard to please everyone.
So on balance it feels like he has made a good start. For young people, and those who work with them, the test is how the detailed plans play out. The Mayor wants more people to access sport and culture – will young people get more opportunities to do this both within schools and their communities? Will there be housing plan specifically focused on the needs of young people? And will the commitment to community spaces come with an equally strong commitment to sustaining them, and the support they offer young people into the future? And fundamentally, will he keep listening to and championing young Londoners, so that they can grow up to play a full part in the city’s future?
It is early days for the new Mayor, and there is much to be positive about. Before his election in May, Sadiq responded encouragingly to the Vision for Young Londoners, an agenda for young people that was supported by around 100 organisations working with young people in the capital, and to the London Fairness Commission, which had specific proposals aimed at improving chances for the capital’s young people. So we look forward to participating fully in the consultation process, and working with him and his team to put some of this agenda into practice, and make his bold aspirations a reality.