WWhat do politicians desperate for headlines always promise? They promise to build something. The day I heard that my penniless local youth club was about to close, Boris Johnson offered a staggering £ 100 million every week for 20 years to build just one new railway, HS2.
It was announced last weekend that two-thirds of small youth clubs in England were facing closure, with 20% already closed or closed and 30% likely to disappear in June. According to the UK Youth charity, these groups are on the absolute front lines of social work, a time when an estimated 1.5 million young people are at risk of domestic seizures, school refusal, gangs, drugs and prison. While the nation may worry about children and students facing test loss, most will survive. It is those who go online who may not, and the costs to society will far exceed the amount needed to maintain them now.
The main reason for the seemingly imminent collapse of youth clubs is that they are not a priority. Those who use them only become a charge to the state when such services have failed and the youth are formally taken into custody or care. Even then they are not safe, given the recent publicity of unregulated care shelters and cuts to trial care. For me, a youth club comes before a school, as a shelter for the homeless comes before a municipal farm.
Of the £ 750 million purportedly allocated to charities under Covid’s wasteful spending, only £ 34 million is spent on youth care. This is after an extraordinary 23% drop in money for those services during the last 10 years of austerity. This is the result not only of Whitehall’s hostility to localism, but also that services like youth clubs are seen as a discretionary luxury. They are as vital to community safety as neighborhood watch, but prime ministers never promise them billions.
The political bias in favor of physical infrastructure against money for the people is universal. Joe Biden’s most generous gesture to his voters in the last election was a commit to spending $ 2 billion on “roads, bridges and electric vehicle charging points”, although they are not even federal responsibilities. Spending large sums of money on construction is usually the action of autocrats and those who yearn for immortality.
Egypt is now planning an entirely new capital city in the desert. President Modi of India wants to surround the majestic Rajpath of Lutyens in Delhi with the blocks of his vast bureaucratic property. China’s leaders spent $ 1.3 trillion on infrastructure in 2019, despite The Economist reporting that more than half of that spending is estimated to have “destroyed” economic value rather than created it.
Since I’ve never met a well-paid accountant who declares in advance that a government project is loss-making, not even HS2, there is no sensible control of this extravagance. Future generations, not current ones, of taxpayers will usually have to find the money to pay it. Since he was Mayor of London, Johnson was as mesmerized as George Osborne by the machismo of the helmet. His fixation was on the airports of the estuary, the Olympic cities, the super sewers, the zip lines and the garden bridges. He spent almost as much not building the Thames Garden Bridge, £ 43 million, than necessary to keep Hammersmith Bridge from rotting in disuse. The difference was that one was a starter and the other was not.
A classic of Johnson’s infrastructure syndrome is Nightingale hospitals. It is impossible to believe that no one in Downing Street ever asked if they could ever be properly staffed. The answer was no, but no one dared to give it. Now we are faced with precisely the capacity crisis that hospitals had to avoid, while any doctor or nurse anxious to get out of retirement rejected by the NHS bureaucracy.
When Johnson announced his exit from the coronavirus recession last summer, he donned a high-visibility jacket and promised £ 5 billion to “rebuild better”, promising 29 highway projects, 50 schools and countless universities, prisons and hospitals. In today’s Whitehall, it is a sin to be a human being rather than a concrete mixer.
The government’s emphasis is on hospitals more than doctors, schools more than teachers, museums more than their contents. Urban economists like Richard Florida have advocated for years that cities are not seen as buildings, but as centers of creativity, as places where people can find excitement, companionship and safety.
This vision should underpin the resurgence of cities after the pandemic. Johnson’s legitimate concern for the resurgence of the North requires giving his cities the ability to attract and retain human talent. This must lie in the quality of life and culture, the reduction of deprivation and the care of the environment. It means reliving the boring things that are now hungry for money: gardens, pubs, concerts, day centers, youth clubs; no jumpers, helmets and holders.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism