Inside the decline of London’s youth clubs

Marcus Lipton Youth Club is one of London’s few remaining centres amid exclusionary regeneration and government cuts to youth services. Writer and youth worker Ciaran Thapar, who volunteers at the club, explores why such places are vital for London’s communities 

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Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. All photographs: Tristan Bejawn

The first time I knocked on the door of Marcus Lipton Youth Club in Loughborough Junction, south London, over three years ago, fresh flowers lay on the pavement across the road. Placed in memory of a murdered teenage boy, they remain there to this day, dead and drained of colour, a reminder of normalised tragedy in the contemporary city.

The community centre rests in the shadows of the modernist slab blocks of the Loughborough  Estate. It is a squat building with a thick, barred front door. The astroturf football pitch at the back sits next to an abandoned nursery, overgrown with weeds and a scrapyard piled high with the carcasses of rusting cars. Raised railway tracks nearby, upon which trains trundle past carrying commuters to and from the City, are lined with barbed-wire fences to resist invasion by graffiti artists and urban explorers.

Within the centre, a large hall with a table-tennis table, old furniture and games console leads through to a sports hall and small gym. On winter evenings, when local teenagers crave the centre’s warmth and electricity most urgently, food bubbles on the stove in the kitchen. UK drill music, the soundtrack to local life, blares continuously from a speaker. I’ve sat in the studio there, with boys I mentor, whilst they lay down their dark lyrics over rumbling instrumentals, narrating their hidden lives in adolescent catharsis. The centre is covered in CCTV cameras, all of which feed onto a live television stream in the office, where I spend most of my time speaking to staff.

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Helen Hayes, MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, holds an audience at Marcus Lipton

For local young people, Loughborough Junction is an unforgiving pocket of the capital; a long-deprived residential hinterland, wedged between the regenerating hubs of Brixton and Camberwell. Whilst volunteering at Marcus Lipton, I have met visitors of all ages: from 11-year-olds receiving football coaching and teenagers who have lost siblings to knife crime, to 40-somethings who have returned to counsel younger men. Here, different generations of local life pivot around the community centre.

“Youth work used to be a thriving game” says Ira Campbell, managing director of Marcus Lipton. “But under austerity, it’s becoming harder and harder. It’s funny, because everyone’s getting together – politicians and that – and saying these kids need somewhere to go. But what else are they going to do apart from sit on their estate and make trouble if there is no service available?”

In 2018, youth violence has soared across London. Young people from socioeconomically stretched families living in high-risk areas feel neither safe in public, nor comfortable at home, and thus require safe spaces to spend their time more than ever. Yet for those in charge of local organisations, like Campbell, providing this safe space has become increasingly difficult under the Conservative government’s funding cuts.

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Research released this year by Green Party politician Sian Berry has found there has been a 44% cut from London youth service budgets since 2011. At least 81 youth clubs and council-funded youth projects have been closed in the city, and 800 full-time youth worker positions scrapped. This equates to a state-sponsored stranglehold of young life.

To do youth work today, “you have to be a cook, cleaner, mum, dad, case-worker, policeman, mentor, and teacher, all in one,” says Campbell. “You’re stretched more and more in different directions, but have less time and money to do a proper job.”

Tania de St Croix, lecturer in the sociology of youth and childhood at King’s College London, echoes Campbell’s sentiments. “Young people, especially in London, live in more cramped accommodation and have less disposable income than ever before,” she says. “With the academisation of state schools, which has emphasised discipline and punishment, there is less trust in teachers. A gap therefore exists for youth workers to fill, as adults who children choose to go to for personal, non-hierarchical support. Youth services really are at a crunch time.”

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The Loughborough Estate

Alongside government cuts, community centres such as Marcus Lipton are threatened by rampant development in London. Like so many parts of the city, Loughborough Junction is experiencing the insidious creep of gentrification. New blocks of luxury flats pop up every few months alongside neglected council flat towers; artisanal cafes and extortionately priced gift shops brush shoulders with longstanding Jamaican bakeries and hardware stores.

As market forces compound to transform local life, it is difficult to see how institutions like Marcus Lipton will thrive, let alone survive. A stalled regeneration proposal for the area includes a plan to rebuild the centre and use the current land for new private homes. De St Croix says this type of insecure reality is especially bleak for youth-friendly spaces which have existed for many decades. “There is an assumption that young people need stuff to be bright and brand new,” she says. “But there is a space for the old-school youth club which has been in the community for generations. That brings something special.”

She believes the fundamental thing is simply having a basic space so young people can feel a sense of co-ownership and community around it, and laments the endless losses of well-established youth clubs due to local authority closures. “You’re never going to get those buildings back to public ownership,” she says. “That loss extends to the loss of an older generation of experienced youth workers, too, who aren’t being valued as mentors, or replaced when they burn out. Some people have put a lifetime into their communities.”

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On a recent visit to Marcus Lipton, I sat down with Campbell in his office to catch up. The early autumn sun streamed through the grubby window onto his face as he leant across a cluttered desk. I asked him what he thinks young people in communities like the one he serves need most from youth services. “The kids that use youth clubs are not well-to-do kids,” he says. “Why would a wealthy kid need to come here? They’re comfortable at home. Kids that come to places like this, it’s their escapism from everything else they’ve got going on in their household, in their school. The community centre is a place where they can be free for a bit.”

 

All photographs by Tristan Bejawn and all rights reserved.

Ciaran Thapar is a youth worker and writer based in south London. He is planning a book about life at Marcus Lipton Community Centre

 

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Housing London’s Young

Why supporting and enabling young people to live in London is key. By Francesca Perry

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A YouGov poll conducted earlier this month revealed that the majority of Londoners believe the best age to live in the city is in your 20s – but with extensive unemployment amongst young people and an increasingly exclusive housing market, is this really the case?

A clear effect of these soaring house prices and rents is to push people out of the city that cannot afford it. So-called affordable housing is beyond many people’s reach; new luxury residential developments proliferate and private rents rise quicker than most young people’s incomes – the result is that those young people facing unemployment, low-paid jobs and debt are excluded from the very city that attracted them in the first place – the city of so much promise.

This ‘exodus’ of people from London has been reported in the media recently – yet most still herald the city as the big draw for young talented people. The truth is, many seriously struggle to get their foot on the career ladder here, let alone the property ladder. The thought of buying a house has become a pipe-dream for the majority of London’s young residents. In the late 90s, the average house price was five times the average salary – now it is 10 times that, and rising.

Many either stay renting, hemorrhaging money even in the cheaper pockets of the capital, or they move out entirely. 26% of the UK’s young adult population now live with their parents – but for some this is not an option. In some cases, young people are forced by London’s unfeasible rents to choose stark and even dangerous living conditions just to stay in the city, including the so-called slums of houseboats without running water or heating, detailed in a Guardian article recently written by a young houseboat resident. What he writes reveals a reality we are all too unaware of: ‘I’ve often heard people ask how anyone can afford to live in London on low paid, insecure work. The truth is that some don’t really live at all; they merely exist, and their existence is bleak and unforgiving.’

Home‘, a play by Nadia Fall exploring young people’s experience of homelessness in London, returns to The National Theatre next month. The play developed out of a project based in a temporary supported accommodation hostel in East London for homeless young people. The project discovered that as rents rise substantially above the level of benefit young people can receive, more end up homeless and in need of shelter.

Welfare reform changes, including the Shared Accommodation Rate and the capping of Local Housing Allowance are reducing young people’s ability to access private rented accommodation. Furthermore, this accommodation can be insecure and poor quality, with landlords increasing rents with no notice. Esta Orchard, an inspiring woman behind the Home project believes that current benefit changes and reduction in supported housing for young people are more likely to lead to increased homelessness, poorer chances to gain employment and increased mental health problems.

Why has inclusivity so clearly disappeared from this city’s agenda? If we cannot sustain a city that is balanced, inclusive, supportive and enabling to all people, we are travelling down a worrying path. London’s future is cast as one of empty towers of luxury flats, homes only for the very wealthy, with public spaces and streets starved of diversity. Not to mention a hollowed economy that usually thrives from the talent and creativity of young people – the people who are being pushed out and away from these jobs.We cannot disrupt the momentum of flourishing start-ups and creative sectors so critical to our economic recovery by making the city unaffordable for the young.

So what can be done? Well, we can start by supporting alternative and more affordable models of housing. For instance, Nakedhouse is an organisation that has emerged out of the fact that young Londoners have been priced out of the property market. They build affordable, stripped-back, low-cost housing that enables people to secure their own accommodation in the city. Community Land Trusts are gaining traction in order to secure more genuinely affordable homes, including The East London Community Land Trust in Mile End. These trusts are nonprofit, membership organisations run by local people that develop permanently affordable housing and other community assets for long-term community benefit.

But we also need to see an overhaul of approaches to and policies around housebuilding, as well as structures in place to avoid rent and property prices to rise far above the realities of income. Many people recently, including London’s young residents, media platforms and politicians, have called for rent controls as a possible way out of London’s housing crisis. If such rent-regulation laws succeed in maintaining New York as a young, thriving city – why not London? In addition to this, we could do well to curb hyper-luxury developments and implement a vacancy tax. A large number of properties in London sit dormant, purchased only as investments, in the process pricing London’s residents out of their own city.

We may need to build a huge amount of housing, but this is not just a numbers game. This is about people. Economic growth is high on the capital’s – as well as the UK’s – agenda; but if we focus too much purely on the economic aspirations of the city, we may forget issues of quality of life and inclusivity in the process – and a city driven only by money is not socially – and ultimately economically – sustainable.

Young people are vital to any city and any place. They are the future generation of leaders and the current situation of housing in London is forcing many to leave. Meanwhile many do drastic things in order to afford to stay: choosing jobs they do not want, working unhealthy hours and living in poor conditions. If we don’t provide for or support our young generation now, we will be destroying our social future. But, of course, it is not only the young being disadvantaged by the housing situation – as the new Prince’s FoundationHousing London’ report concludes, this lack of affordability threatens to cripple the capacity of so many to keep London as their home. Let’s ensure that our housing responds to the diverse needs of London’s residents, and enables them to live and thrive here, for the long term.

 

This is an adapted version of a talk I gave at The Prince’s Foundation ‘Housing London’ Symposium to HRH The Prince of Wales on 26th March 2014.