Geraldine Tovey: "Times are tough and funding is more difficult to acquire than ever"

Geraldine Tovey, trustee for Knights Youth Centre reflects on how the charity has managed to survive so far but ponders the future not only for themselves, but for other youth centres.

Having worked in the trust and foundation sector for most of my career, I genuinely thought that I was well attuned to the issues facing youth centres across London and the rest of the country. In fact, when I worked at London Funders, it was part of my role to inform members just how tough the situation was for youth centres in the capital, and I regularly cited the London Assembly’s report which showed that council youth service budgets had been slashed by more than 50% between 2011-12 and 2020-21 and that 130 youth centres have shut permanently in the city since 2012.

However, it wasn’t until I became a Trustee of Knights Youth Centre in 2021 that I really understood just how much could be achieved on a slim budget, and how special and resilient a youth centre needed to have been to survive austerity, then the pandemic – and now the cost of living crisis. Youth centres have been battling to do more with less for over a decade now, and it goes without saying that many who work in the sector are simply very, very tired.

When I became a Trustee in 2021 at the tail-end of the second lockdown, I was blown away by how embedded Knights was in the community, and how quickly the Centre adapted to provide digital youth work, food deliveries to vulnerable and isolated residents and outdoor activities to keep people connected. And now that things are back to relative normality, Knights is providing more services than ever – from kayaking at Wey Island, to offering music production sessions and engaging with local schools, Knights offers young people in Lambeth a huge variety of opportunities to learn, develop and grow.

Why has Knights managed to survive (and to an extent, thrive) when so many others (including neighbouring clubs in our borough) have had to stop providing services? The centre still exists because of its incredibly long history – Knights has been a presence in the area since 1936 and has adapted and changed with the local community, and offers a unique safe space for young people across the borough to come to.

The history of the centre has had a huge ripple effect on how the club is ran to this day. Many of our youth workers are with us because of our ‘grow your own’ ethos – they came as a young person and then wanted to stay involved and feel passionate about supporting young people and making the club a success. And when you look at the board of Trustees, I am in the minority for not having attended the centre in my youth – and the links that the trustees have to the club means that they are far more dedicated and involved in its day-to-day activities than the average board.

Then when you look at our stakeholder relationships, with history comes trust. We have a positive relationship with the local council, and funders can look back over decades of delivery and can be assured that we are here for the long term.

But Knights is rare, times are tough, and funding is more difficult to acquire than ever. I am sure I speak on behalf of all youth centres when I say we have all had to cope and adapt to real-terms cuts, and there simply isn’t that much more in the tank. UK Youth summed it very well when their recent report said that “unrestricted long-term financial aid” should to be made available to the youth sector in order to address the sector’s “urgent and considerable” need.

And speaking as an adopted Londoner and from the perspective of an inner London youth centre, there also needs to be a governmental acknowledgement that levelling up the rest of the country should not come at the expense of the capital. There needs to be an ‘and’ London approach, not an ‘or’ London approach – demonising London and reducing funding will do far more long-term harm than good, both for people growing up here, and for London’s relationship with the wider United Kingdom. It’s been frustrating to see national funding pots that we cannot apply to as a result of this agenda.

Knights has only managed to survive (and not become one of the closed 130) because it is exceptional and has such a rich history and values. We have had to make some very hard decisions along the way to get here and remain sustainable. As we look ahead to the future, I’m very much hoping that we can stride to our centenary in 2036, and that we receive the support that we need for our services and staff so that this can happen.

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