This article appeared in the 07/12/18 edition of the South London Press.
As some South London Press readers will know, since being elected in 2015 one of my main concerns has been youth violence. I set up the Youth Violence Commission in 2016 to try and gain a greater understanding of the root causes and how they might be addressed through policy changes.
Youth violence might initially seem an unlikely choice for someone with a background in the creative arts, but my work with the commission has shown me how the arts can actually play an important role in supporting young people and encouraging them not to become involved with gangs and violence.
One of the organisations I have come into contact with through the commission is Bridge the Gap Studios, a social enterprise working with young people from across London who are facing a variety of difficult circumstances. I was incredibly impressed by the young people I met when I helped them to stage Silent Voices – a play about the impact of youth violence – in Parliament. They were confident, articulate and had a huge amount of passion for life. I can’t help wondering what difficulties they must have already had to overcome in their short lives.
As is becoming more and more apparent, the programme of austerity implemented by successive Conservative-led governments has had a massive impact on funding for the arts. Local authority spending on culture was cut by a third between 2009 and 2017.
With Brexit now lurking on the horizon, the future looks even more uncertain. The Arts Council of England commissioned a report on the impact of Brexit on the arts and culture sector, surveying almost 1000 stakeholders. The results show that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit is a major concern in the sector. There is a widespread belief that funding for arts and culture is unlikely to be a priority for the government in the coming months.
Just last week comedian Shappi Khorsandi wrote an excellent article on this very subject for The Independent. In it she talks about her own experience of working with a theatre company which tackled the issue of homelessness after leaving prison or care and saw the positive impact it had on young people who had already been written off by society.
It is all too easy to dismiss the arts as an optional extra or a luxury, but I believe that they can be central to a young person’s sense of well-being and belonging. As Shappi says in her article, “Everyone needs a purpose. They need to belong somewhere, and if all you have where you live is gangs and putting up a hard front and acting tough then that is what you will do.”
And that urgently needs to change.