Youth service cuts affecting thousands of youngsters ‘devastating’

Youth services that reached more than 9,700 youngsters this year will be axed following a “devastating” decision by council bosses to plug the budget gap.

Kent County Council (KCC) chiefs have decided to discontinue external contracts coming to an end in March 2024 in a bid to save £913,000.

It comes as part of the larger task of cutting £36 million to balance the council’s books.

The council’s in-house youth services, which this year so far reached 4,100 young people, are intended to continue through a newly agreed “family hub” network to be set up around the county.

But the cuts have been criticised for being a “false economy”, which may have negative impacts on communities such as young people with special educational needs (SEN).

Folkestone and Hythe District Council’s community chief Mike Blakemore said: “This is a devastating decision and means that, unless they can find alternative funding on an ongoing basis, Shepway Autism Support Group and other much-prized local youth groups will have to close.

“Should these groups cease to exist we will be left with a gap that will be difficult to fill and which may have far-reaching negative impacts. This will be a false economy.”

Shepway Autism Support Group said it was in talks to find “creative” solutions to keep the club running.

Alasdair Kyle said, during the consultation period, that if the funding was removed his son could lose the opportunity to meet and mix with his peers locally and potentially isolate young autistic people at home.

Mr Kyle said: “Our autistic son is 23 and the high points of his week are when he attends his youth groups.

“Interacting with his peers at these groups has significantly improved his social and communication skills.”

Shepway Autism Support Group committee member Moira Crawford said: “We are very disappointed that KCC has voted to end the external contracts for youth services.

“The Shepway Autism Support Group youth club in Hythe provides a unique opportunity for autistic young people to get together with friends, especially in this area of south Kent which tends to be a black hole for services.”

In KCC’s consultation feedback, some have described services as an “absolute lifeline for my family” and one youth club under threat is described as being the “only place my son feels safe”.

Chief executive Peter Heckel of Salus, Kent’s largest contracted youth service provider, told the PA new agency that while he understands the financial pressures the council are under, the decision “doesn’t make sense morally or financially”.

He said: “The family hub model they are putting forward, it is just very small and it’s not going to meet the needs of young people.

“It’s not the fact we are losing the money that is the problem, it’s the fact young people aren’t going to receive a service.

“If you read the consultation it’s overwhelmingly ‘what are you doing? You shouldn’t be doing this’.”

Mr Heckel said he fears that the young people receiving low-level help and prevention services may see their needs escalate in the coming months, which will put more pressure on statutory services.

He said Salus also works with young people vulnerable to criminal exploitation, such as by county lines gangs, and that youth clubs offer an alternative space to go.

Council bosses have said the authority still has a wide range of intervention services for young people, including through the family hubs and early intervention services.

On the reaction of young people to the news that the clubs could close, Mr Heckel said: “Devastated, we’re already having young people counting down [the weeks].”

At a cabinet meeting on November 30, when council bosses agreed to cut funding for the external contracts, they also decided to set up family hubs as part of a government programme with £11 million funding for three years.

The initiative will offer support for children aged 0 to 19, and 0 to 25 for young people with SEN, through a “transformational programme”, children’s services boss Sue Chandler told PA.

Family hubs, community outreach and digital services will integrate health, public health and children’s services, as well as services for young people, providing a “one-stop-shop”, she added.

Ms Chandler said while the decision is “regrettable” she hopes some of the groups will find alternative funding, and that all the groups existed long before they received funding from KCC.

She said: “We can never argue it will replace the whole of what has been delivered up until now but given the financial constraints the council is under we will be offering a significant number of youth services.

“I think it’s important to remember it’s perhaps a changed picture but not one that is going to be wholly hollowed out by the decision we are making.”

She added: “I understand for a number of young people this is going to be difficult, the decision was not made lightly.

“If we as a council don’t balance [the budget], as has happened to councils, Nottingham has been the most recent, if we don’t balance the budget we as politicians have absolutely no say on what services we can deliver.”