What a joy it was early this year to talk at length with a Youth Mayor and two Deputy Members of the UK Youth Parliament about the role of their Youth Council in a town in the north of England. I was working with Practical Participation to find out why and how young people get involved in decision making about spending money on services for young people for the Heritage Lottery Fund. Our discussions with young people and their youth workers across England were inspiring, thought provoking and enjoyable.
The impact of the work of the three young women with the Youth Council and speaking in schools and at public events is to “completely smash the stereotype that young people don’t want to be involved in politics. We are inspiring a generation.” These youth councillors are involved in commissioning multi million pound projects with the Clinical Commissioning Group for young people’s health services. They undertake the same process as the adults. “We are not stupid. We know the value for money and have pretty good ideas. …Anyone can see how passionate and serious we are”.
Examples of their commissioning include:
• an on-line counselling service staffed by trained professionals for young people across the local authority area
• a theatre piece to perform to young people to challenge their knowledge about and stereotypes of people with mental health issues and to inform them where to find help for themselves or their friends. The audiences were moved by the performances.
• decisions on their own commissioning pot of £120,000.
One use of their campaigning budget was “to seek the banning of mosquito devices, which had been installed in a few places. This was unacceptable discrimination of young people as anti-social and it goes against all the Youth Council stands for. The devices have been taken down. Young people will be involved in the council review of the policy on them every step of the way.” An example of the use of their right set in the council constitution to propose a motion for debate at each full council meeting was a motion to address concern about the local rise in legal highs, which was passed unanimously.
Unprompted, they went on to explain “two full time youth workers support the youth council. They are absolutely essential. We would not achieve nearly as much without them. They support us in everything we do. We have a really good relationship with them”. They felt “really lucky here in the partnership with the council because we are so integrated. Our offices are in the council building, which shows they recognise our value.”
We found that structures for youth voice in a number of places, including some local authorities, still exist with significant commitment from the councillors and officers. This resonated with the research findings of the National Youth Agency and Network of Regional Youth Work Units England published in 2014, which identified ‘some strong commitment and effective approaches to supporting young people’s voice and influence but indications that this focus has been lost in some authorities.’
Practical Participation supports the rights of children and young people to shape the decisions and services that affect their lives. The positive attitude and actions towards the potential of young people to make a difference, which were evidenced in the authorities and organisations we interviewed give hope that the essential values and principles, skills and approaches of youth work to support the empowerment of young people will survive these times of cuts and austerity in youth work and youth services.
Rented accommodation not safe to live in – do sharp practices of letting agents exacerbate this?
Households which can afford private rents not only have insecure tenancies but are subject to practices, which make clear the landlord is their customer and not the tenant. Some landlords are committed to providing a fair and safe housing service and yes, some tenants treat properties very badly. However, many tenants look after the property and pay their rent regularly and yet there are letting agents who abuse these tenants. The percentage of young people aged 25-34 years vulnerable to these practices is more than double in 2014, 48% than in 2004 when it was 21% .
Example 1: the hot water heating system failed for three young people in Leeds. They could not afford to run the heating – the only way to obtain hot water. They emailed the agents asking for a repair and there was no response. Telephoning the agent was only allowed for emergencies. If the agent deemed the situation not to be an emergency, a fine of £20 would be levied. This was too great a risk to take. They could not complain for fear of being evicted.
Example 2: the letting agent treating current tenants as new tenants each time someone new moved into their shared house meant four young women in Norwich had to pay the whole individual administrative fee each time one tenant left. It is hard to see how these three figure sums are justified when they have been tenants for some years.
Example 3: a letting agent in Leeds, widely known for poor practice, hides its identity behind another business who does the marketing. At the point of signing the contract the tenant-to-be discovers that the contract is with the agent they intended to avoid. By then, it is too late not to sign and they know they are vulnerable to sharp practices again. The current Housing and Planning Bill proposes to address these issues with rogue letting agents and landlords. The powers are delegated to local councils but according to research by Karen Buck MP despite 51,916 complaints to 120 local councils (2013 figures) on average councils prosecuted fewer than one landlord a year each. The reasoning of the local government minister Marcus Jones for the defeat of the Labour amendment seeking to ensure that all rented accommodation was “safe for people to live in” was that the proposal would result in “unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords.”
Those of us whose work is committed to social justice should not be reassured as yet by this Bill. The suggestions of Paul Mason, economics editor of Channel 4 News to start with principles and then to shape the market towards smart outcomes gives hope for a way forward.