Funding cuts pose threat to future of Cumbrian town's youth station
Last updated at 14:17, Thursday, 26 May 2011
The market town of Wigton was the first place in the UK to be slapped with a youth curfew.
Over the Easter holidays of 2004, the town’s teens were banned from gathering in the streets in groups of two or more after 9pm.
Perhaps if anywhere in the county needs its facility for disadvantaged and socially excluded young people, Wigton would arguably be among the top spots on the list.
Despite being just 12 miles from Carlisle, the town is cut off from the city, served by a public transport system that locals view as prohibitive. Pockets of deprivation exist on its estates and despite the efforts of Guide and Scout leaders, the Wigton RFU, local schools and the town’s council, resources solely for young people are few.
With a population of just over 5,000, the Wigton Youth Station has been part of this tightly knit community for 13 years. Many families are sustained by the Innovia factory where a large proportion of the townspeople work. In fact, payroll donations from factory employees help the Youth Station pay the bills on the High Street building they were able to buy in 1998 thanks to a lottery grant.
Yet the days of the youth facility could soon be numbered.
Back in January, Cumbria County Council identified a minimum of £500,000 in cuts to third sector organisations. The exact details are still being hashed out, but the charities fear the final sum could prove to be much higher.
It’s true that council cash is often just a drop in the ocean for youth groups. But as a recent report by the Cumbria Third Sector network states: “It is often used to lever in additional funding and can form a vital part of their funding.”
And as funding pots nationally shrink too the ‘youthie’, as its users affectionately call it, is just one of many charitable organisations scrambling for cash to survive.
A recent bid to the lottery failed. The hoped-for £326,000 would have secured the Youth Station’s future for the next five years. A high volume of applications was cited as a reason for the bid’s rejection.
“We are going to a funding fair in June,” says centre manager Angela Bicknell. “But we know there will be half the number of funders there as there have been in the past.
“There are now more people going for smaller funding pots.
“We realise we aren’t the only ones struggling. But there are more young people accessing us than ever before.”
She adds that cuts to hit children’s services in the coming months mean that facilities for young people will become even more crucial.
“What damage is going to be already done when the Government realises what it is doing is ineffective?
“When they begin throwing money at us again, what will there be left to grow?”
The High Street club has 107 young people on its books aged between 11 and 18, employs four staff members and boasts Lord Melvyn Bragg as its patron.
The latest recruit to the team is Harley Young. The 18-year-old grew up in Wigton and has been at the forefront of a campaign alongside the local policing team to clamp down on perceived antisocial behaviour on the town’s Kirkland Estate.
In what must have been an intimidating atmosphere initially, Harley took to the streets mediating between young people and local residents to soothe fractured relations. Since he began his Street Safe initiative, police have seen a 90 per cent drop in reports of antisocial behaviour on the estate.
It’s a fearless example of a community healing itself. And a case study of the sort of partnership working championed by the coalition administration.
Yet the Wigton Youth Station is “up against the boards”, according to Angela. The trust must secure funding to cover core costs of £60,000 a year or the doors to the white and red building will be closed by October.
Youth worker Tracy Noble is fiercely passionate about the facility. Though the Youth Station staff know constant rounds of funding bids and knock-backs are the nature of the beast, it’s tougher now to keep afloat than ever before.
“It’s soul destroying,” she says. “When you have to keep fighting and fighting. This is about the future of young people today.”
Tracy knows first hand how committed adults can help turn around the lives of the young people they support.
Tracy was a teen mum living in Wigton, in danger of becoming socially isolated she describes herself as having been “troublesome”. “I had issues,” she says, face set in a grimace.
But former youth worker Linda Gillespie launched a young mum’s group in the town and took Tracy under her wing.
Spotting Tracy’s potential, Linda later suggested she begin volunteering alongside her. “I gave it a go, just to get out of the house. I sat in a window for the first couple of weeks. It’s not easy getting young people to talk to you. They make snap decisions, a bit like adults do.”
After eight years of volunteering, Tracy was employed as a youth worker at the Youth Station. She was encouraged to go to university and despite bottling the interview three times due to a lack of confidence Tracy, now 42, has a BA in Youth and Community Studies from the University of Cumbria.
“It gave me a boost,” she says. “It made me see that I am worthy of doing something.”
Another Wigton youthie success story is Linzi McAvoy. Now in her 20s, Linzi was once on the verge of being expelled from school. She says: “The youth station helped keep me focused on getting through school.
“It kept us all off the streets and from getting into trouble.”
Linzi is now at university studying to become a social worker. She adds: “I believe without the help and support of staff at the youth station while I was at school, I would have been kicked out and wouldn't be where I am today.”
The Youth Station records accredited outcomes in order to tick funders’ boxes – young people can study for Open College Network qualifications, canoeing certificates and suchlike. But one difficulty youth organisations face is quantifying the huge differences they make to individuals in more personal ways.
Tracy says: “We know the children, we see them grow and change, build confidence and self-esteem.”
“That’s not always recordable,” adds Angela. “The Government isn’t going to hear about the difference we make to these young people within the space of six weeks.”
One marker of success is that the Youth Station’s membership is increasing. “The young people choose to be here,” says Angela. “They vote with their feet.”
The Youth Station has a young women’s group on Monday’s covering sexual health, knife crime and positive body image among other topics.
On Tuesday, a group of young people meet to explore ways in which they can bring the community closer together. In the past they have created an inter-generational DVD interviewing older people about their experiences of Wigton. More recently, they are attempting to create an annual event to celebrate their town in partnership with the national Your Square Mile scheme.
Wednesdays see a group of young men head out fishing under the guidance of Chris Bowman from the not-for-profit company, Borderlines.
Thursday is open access day where the young people meet socially.
“It’s a safe space for them here,” says Angela. “And it’s when we get ideas to inform future practice and recruit for projects.”
The Funky Friday group, consisting of young people with disabilities, meets weekly working on web projects and first aid training among other activities.
Overarching projects, such as the allotment the Youth Station users proudly weed and hoe, also demonstrate a commitment to improving local relations – some of the produce is given to the local Age UK group.
Though the Youth Station building is markedly a space for young people. The walls are adorned with collages, murals and a pool table takes pride of place next to the small computer suite.
The kitchen where young people learn how to create healthy dishes for themselves and their families is bright and user friendly. The low window sills provide the perfect spot for teens to hang out and chew the fat.
It’s not a flash space, dripping with the latest technology, but it belongs to the young people of Wigton. “We know what we do works,” says Angela.
And it does, demonstrably so. On a recent visit to Wigton, environment minister Lord Henley met with a large group of Youth Station teens picking litter up from a neglected town footpath.
A charming, faintly motley bunch, these young people turned out with their bin bags and paddled in the pouring rain to do their bit. It wasn’t a set-up either – they’d all been out on several previous litter picks, unwitnessed by visiting dignitaries.
“We don’t tell them, we ask them. Young people care about where they live too,” says Tracy. “They do care what it looks like.
“When I’m with the groups, I’m constantly thinking about how we can make social change.
“People think you are taking a few bad ‘uns off for a jolly and getting paid for it. But this is about changing attitudes. You can’t change the world, but you can help change the way people look at it.
“And I do think it’s easier to help young people to alter their perceptions than it is to change those of older people.
“Give me a room full of young people any day. And after all, they are the future.”
If you can help the Wigton Youth Station either through donations, or help with funding bids, contact Angela Bicknell on 016973 44200.
First published at 11:30, Thursday, 26 May 2011
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk
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