If we want a better future, we must invest in people

If there was a fire in your kitchen, you’d put it out.  Immediately.  Or call the fire brigade.  You wouldn’t say, “We don’t have the resources to fix this right now,” close the door, and pretend the problem will go away. 

Yet this mindset gets wheeled-out to justify inaction over social challenges.  Small issues are left to fester until they become huge problems – all in the name of saving a few quid. We’re told youth centres that steer young people away from crime are too expensive.  But the money’s there to pay for young people in prison.  We’re told helping isolated older residents stay independent is unaffordable.  But we foot a bigger bill when they end up in A&E.   We hear “savings must be found” from mentoring programmes for struggling parents.  But we pay a lot more when a child ends up in care.

Our community services are victims of this ideological delusion.  It’s been going on for over a decade.  Ever since bankers’ bonuses won out above children’s’ centres.  The saddest thing is if we just did the compassionate thing, it would save us a fortune down the line. 

Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reviewed the Sure Start scheme.  They found it prevented over 13,000 hospitalisations of 11 to 15 year olds every year.  These are kids who finished Sure Start at least 5 years earlier, but the benefits stayed with them.  They had healthier immune systems and more robust mental health.  Savings from this alone would pay for a third of the whole Sure Start scheme.  Yet over 1,300 Sure Start centres were closed between 2010 and 2019. 

The link between youth service funding and knife crime is almost mechanical – when one goes down, the other goes up.  Young people face a greater risk of violence in places where there’s less support for them.  Since 2012 budget cuts have forced the closure of 760 youth centres across England.  David Cameron decided we’d have a Big Society instead. 

Community centres are not ‘nice to haves’.  They are lifelines.  We don’t need shiny new buildings.  We need core funding for long term stability.  Community hubs thrive on a network of long term relationships.  These can’t thrive if the funding is under review every 12 months.

That’s why the North of Tyne Community Hubs policy prioritised strengthening networks where they already exist.  We’ve invested £1.5 million into community-led work across Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland – delivering a promise I made in my election manifesto.  A couple of weeks ago I visited the Children and Families Newcastle Hub in Benwell to see how the magic happens. 

It’s based in the Carnegie Building, a grand old library on Atkinson Road.  At a buzzing ‘stay and play’ session, surrounded by toddlers, local families told me how the centre had supported them during difficult lockdown months. Mary, a former midwife, said the hub had boosted the confidence of her 18-month-old granddaughter.  Covid meant she hadn’t played with many other toddlers. 

The NHS child health clinic runs in the next room, increasing participation rates.  Upstairs people are practising on first aid dummies, and getting qualified for work.  Another room hosts a training course for people learning to work in the security industry.  An employment coaching agency runs from another room.  As does Sidestep, a charity that undertakes patient – and successful – long-term work with young people vulnerable to exploitation. 

I was mid-thirties when my eldest was born.  My wife and I both had good careers, good health, financial stability, and a supportive network of friends and family.  And it was still exhausting.  I heard the story of a young woman who’d struggled parenting her first child.  She couldn’t cope, and her little one was taken into care.  She spoke to people at the centre.  She built mutual trust with the staff, and engaged with the groups.  She opened up to other mothers who’d struggled and came to realise she wasn’t alone.  She’s gone on to raise two more kids, one of whom is now studying at Oxford University. 

If we want a better future, we must invest in people.  Not close the door on them, and wait for the fire to spread. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21 March 2022