KEEP your hands off our youth clubs. That’s the message today from hundreds of youngsters across Southampton facing the loss of a safe and fun place to go after school.
Children’s services in the city face the brunt of the deepest council cuts ever proposed. About one third of the £20m of savings planned, and up to 126 jobs losses, will come from the council’s children’s department.
The Woolston Youth Project is one of eight clubs for 11- to 19-year-olds threatened with closure.
Twice a week up to 40 youngsters gather at the St Mark’s Institute to hang out, listen to music, surf the Internet, play indoor sports or try their hand at cooking and other actitvies.
Many have met new friends, learned new skills, gained confidence and the trust of youth workers and local police officers.
For 50p a session their parents know they will be safe and out of trouble for the evening.
Safety messages on sexual health and the dangers of drugs and booze are pinned on the walls, which the youths have decorated with colourful designs and murals.
But they have now turned their craft skills into a campaign to save their much-loved club.
Posters are being drawn up and petitions circulated.
The youngsters told the Echo they couldn’t understand why councillors had put them in their sights.
Kayley, 15, has been going to the club for three years, taking a bus from Weston to meet up with the new friends she has made there since moving away from Woolston.
“I would have nothing to do on weekdays if they close it down,” she said. “I would just be sitting at home bored or hanging round on the streets.”
Marshall, 11, who also travels from Weston to the club, said: “If it gets shut down everyone is going to get told off all the time for hanging around the streets. My mum lets me come here because it’s somewhere safe.”
Under proposed budget cuts the council hopes to save up to £765,600 by axing youth and play services. They have been heavily hit by budget cuts in recent years.
Aside from the youth clubs, which are attended by up to 1,000 youths a month, three supervised adventure play areas for five- to 13-year-olds in Thornhill, Newtown and Lordshill are also under threat. They are used by up to 40 children after school.
As a result more than 30 youth and play workers employed by the council face redundancy.
Church and voluntary organisations are being encouraged to come forward and take over some of the youth sessions.
But one youth worker, who did not want to be named, said: “It’s OK saying we will stick a couple of parents in a youth club but some of these kids have serious issues. It’s just outrageous.
“What the kids are seeing is a new museum being built, some new lights on the (Itchen Bridge). What is more important: bricks and mortar or our children?”
Another youth worker said: “It’s like management and the chief executive haven’t got a clue what we do. They think we are just a pretty add-on project.”
One of the youth workers said: “We’re on a deprived estate where the children cannot afford to go to football or swimming.
“It’s their only release.”
As well as co-ordinating youth clubs, the youth workers go out into their communities, often working alongside the police, to encourage youngsters into positive activities. They also work with schools to get truanting pupils back into the classroom and smooth the transition between primary and secondary schools for vulnerable children.
Others are given casework to help the city’s 350 jobless 16- to 19-year-olds into work or training. They also co-ordinate the city’s Duke of Edinburgh Awards.
The council wants schools and colleges to pick up much of this work. But council officers themselves have warned that the loss of a dedicated youth service “could result in an increased risk of young people being involved in anti-social behaviour, and reduce their ability to access work”.
The Northam and Newtown youth centres attract high numbers from ethnic minority communities whose culture often doesn’t allow them to “go out” but they are allowed to go to supervised youth clubs.
Mohammed ‘Khanjee’ Khan, from the Muslim Council of Southampton, said he feared a rise in antisocial behaviour if Newtown closed.
“If you close that, where are they going to go?” he said.
“Can you imagine 70 to 80 youths with nothing to do. How on earth are you going to deal with this?”
Steve Plumridge, a community campaigner from Millbrook, said: “Children are our future. We have to look after them. We will be asking them to go out and find their own entertainment.
“It’s going to put more strain on the police. To hit our children is totally wrong.”
The closure of youth services would save £3,000 in annual hire fees paid by the council to the St Mark’s Institute, the Swaythling Neighbourhood Centre and Woodlands Community School.
A free meeting venue would no longer be provided to the Breakout Youth Project, a charity for gay and lesbian young people.
While not ruling out any cuts, Tory children’s spokesman Councillor Jeremy Moulton accused Labour of “rushing” to close down the service.
“Before you cut everything you’ve got to go through all the alternatives to save the service,” he said.
He suggested council tenants’ rents could be used to save some of the youth service, and volunteer organisations could also be given some council funding.
Labour is considering making youth services statutory if the party gains power at the next general election in May 2015.
A party policy review could make local authorities legally bound to provide a minimum level of provision for young people.