IT’S been a bleak week for the UK youth work sector. The British Youth Council (BYC) – the UK-wide youth-led charity that has empowered young people aged 25 and under to influence local, national, and international political decision-making for more than 75 years – has announced its permanent closure due to ongoing financial challenges.

“Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to provide a sustainable future for the charity. The economic environment has significantly impacted our ability to generate income. This was further cemented by the recent administration of our dedicated and passionate partners The Body Shop,” said Zara Khan, BYC chair.

BYC has been well-known for its advocacy campaigns, and the ­charity played a key role in facilitating numerous youth forums, advisory groups, all-party parliamentary groups, and – most notably – the UK Youth ­Parliament. The futures of these programmes now hang in uncertainty.

My heart aches for all the ­dedicated staff, volunteers, and young ­people ­associated with BYC. Especially amidst a cost of living crisis, navigating ­redundancy becomes ever more ­challenging. BYC is not the first national youth charity to close this year – children’s charity body Children England closed at the start of the year due to financial pressures after 81 years of existence.

The National: LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 10:  Members of the British Youth Council and Youth Parliament hold a live debate on the film set of 'The Iron Lady' at Wimbledon Studios, to debate the role of women in politics on April 10, 2012 in London, England. 150

Khan also noted that “this news will come as a shock to young people across the country, generations of people who have been part of the youth voice ­movement, our supporters and many of our partners”.

Quite a shock, indeed – at least ­initially, until I stopped and reflected some more on this grim news. Thinking about the past 14 years of austerity, in which youth work funding has been severely slashed, my initial shock gave way to a deep sense of sorrow, anger, and fear. Sorrow, for all those directly affected by the closure. Anger, at the UK Government’s continual lack of prioritisation and investment in young people, of which BYC’s closure is just one example. Fear, for what this might mean for the future of youth work and young people’s opportunities for ­political participation.

Recent research commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), published last month, found that 95% of local authorities in ­England reduced their real-terms spending on youth services by at least a quarter ­between 2011 and 2021. This aligns with 2023 YMCA research which found that local authority youth service spending has declined by 73% since 2010.

YMCA and National Youth Agency (NYA) research has shown that this scale of decline has meant there are fewer skilled youth workers, and too few volunteers to support or replace skilled youth workers. Unsurprisingly, funding cuts ­disproportionately affect young people living in the most deprived areas.

Here in Scotland, the story is ­similar. “Ongoing cuts to youth work ­provision have contributed to the youth mental health crisis, poor attainment, lack of ­employment prospects, social ­isolation, anti-social behaviour, bullying and ­risk-taking behaviours,” YouthLink ­Scotland has reported.

“Local councils face tough decisions that may result in cuts to youth work budgets but the impact this will have on young people and their future life ­chances will be far-reaching. Cuts will result in further pressure on other services such as social care, mental health services, social work, the NHS, the police and the criminal justice system. This is not a saving.”

The Scottish Youth Parliament’s (SYP) 2019 report, Youth Work And Me, highlighted the impact youth work budget cuts were having on young people in Scotland. SYP’s subsequent 2023 report highlighted a key finding emerging from discussions at their member sitting in July 2023 – the need for increased youth work funding across Scotland.

The National: Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament Image: Scottish Youth Parliament

I could spend all day going on about the benefits of youth work (I’ve written ­previously for The National about my own experiences), but I’ll try to keep it brief. Youth work enables young people to have fun, try new things, develop practical skills, learn about the world, ­explore our values and issues that matter to us, and develop our voices and places in society.

The necessity of youth work has ­become even greater in recent years – thanks to a global pandemic, significant education disruption, the climate crisis, ­a mental health crisis, the cost of living crisis – especially for those who are vulnerable or from ­disadvantaged backgrounds. This context is heartbreakingly acknowledged in BYC’s closure statement: “We know an unjust and unequal society prevails.”

While I personally never directly ­engaged with BYC, I’ve witnessed the positive impact it has had through friends and colleagues who have been involved.

As pioneers in amplifying youth ­voices and advocating for a more inclusive ­democracy for over 75 years, it’s disheartening to think that many other enthusiastic, motivated, and talented young people may now have fewer opportunities to ­access such invaluable ­experiences, where they could find their voice and have their lived expertise valued. ­Especially with a UK General Election on the horizon. ­Especially given the ­incoming ­implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots Law this ­summer. What about our UNCRC Article 12 right to be heard? “Nothing about us without us”, right? Because “we are the leaders not just of tomorrow, but today”?

At a time when children and young people are struggling more than ever, BYC’s closure is a massive step backwards – and even that is still an understatement. It renders the above statements somewhat hollow when we lose platforms to speak out. We need more – not fewer – opportunities to have our voices heard and respected, to realise a youth-empowering democracy.

Lack of funding is a problem that young people, and those who support us, have been acutely aware of throughout the era of austerity. BYC’s closure and the subsequent outpouring of support, sadness, and tributes online further amplify the alarm that has been ringing for far too long already.

Wake up, decision-makers. Stop hitting the snooze button.

Governments – national and devolved – must prioritise investing in both young people’s futures and our current realities. To do anything less would be to fail young people.

And, to all those who have contributed to BYC’s mission of empowering youth voices over the past 75 years, thank you so much for your efforts and dedication. May your legacy live on.