'I was told by police that I could be arrested. It was terrifying'
Michael Savage meets the 12-year-old who just wants to keep his youth club open
Monday 20 December 2010
When Nicky Wishart began a campaign to save his popular local youth club from closure, he might have been praised for showing the type of community-minded spirit that his local MP, David Cameron, has championed since he entered Downing Street. In fact, the 12-year-old's reward for attempting to rescue the centre – a small, brick hall in the leafy Oxfordshire village of Eynsham – was a visit from the police.
After his plans to hold a small protest outside the constituency office of Mr Cameron were spotted by anti-terror officers on Facebook, Nicky was pulled out of a lesson and warned by police that he would be held responsible if any violence broke out. Without his mother with him, he was frightened. "It was terrifying," said Nicky. "I was told that I could be arrested if there was any trouble at the protest. I was also told that I could be arrested even if I decided not to go myself. I didn't know what to do."
But he was not put off. More than one hundred people turned up at the rally. Like thousands of teenagers across Britain who are also set to lose their local youth centres, Nicky does not know where he and his friends will go once it closes. Hundreds of others, from Croydon to Coventry, are heading for closure as local authorities grapple with huge cuts to their budgets. In Oxfordshire alone, 20 centres out of 27 are in line to be shut as part of a £4m spending squeeze by the county council.
Those running campaigns up and down the country to save their youth clubs have warned the closures will have some unpalatable results for the Coalition Government. With nowhere to hang out with friends, they say more teenagers will simply meet up outside.
The closure of the centres also seems to grate with declarations made by the Prime Minister when in opposition. "Before people break the law, we need strong families, we need youth clubs, we need things to divert people from crime," he said in 2007. "I don't know where we'll go," Nicky said. "Maybe just hang around on the streets. Other centres are too far away."
His mother, Virginia Phelps, 41, agreed. "The centre is full of the village kids – and they're good kids, too," she said. "It's somewhere for them to go on cold, winter nights instead of trying to cram into some. Otherwise, you're always wondering and worrying about where they are and what they're doing.
"What they will do is hang about at the top of the road or outside the shop, and get into trouble and mischief. We do rely on the local youth centre."
The case of Nicky Wishart has the potential to be hugely embarrassing for the Prime Minister. Not only was the treatment of his constituent heavy handed, but the passion of the secondary school pupil for his youth club is exactly the kind of public spirit Mr Cameron cited in his keynote speech at the last Tory Party conference.
Around 20 to 30 other teenagers use Eynsham's centre to play pool, table tennis, surf the web and listen to music. Nicky goes three times a week. The centre's staff also organised cheap excursions.
It was not easy for him to start his campaign. Though they live in an affluent area, his family are not well off and live in a small council property. They do not have a computer of their own, so he used one at the centre to set up his small protest. His Facebook group,
Save ALL UK Youth Centres, now has more than 1,300 members. He has also dispatched a letter to the Prime Minister explaining why he believes the centre should remain open and outlining that he simply cannot afford to do other activities instead. The cinema, he wrote, is too expensive.
A centre is due to remain open in nearby Witney, but he explained to Mr Cameron he would have to borrow money from his mum for the bus and would only be able to stay for a short time before having to head back to Eynsham. "I just want to say to him, look, this really doesn't have to close. Lots of people use it," Nicky said. "I don't know what we'll do without it."
Thames Valley Police have since apologised for speaking to Nicky without his mother being present. She and her son will meet police today to talk over the way in which the situation was handled. "In hindsight, we should have made sure that his mother was with him when the officer spoke to him," said Chief Inspector Jack Malhi, Thames Valley police's local area commander for West Oxfordshire. "We have apologised to Nicky's mother. There was no attempt to dissuade him from holding the protest, but we have a responsibility to inform him of the risks and to ensure people's safety."
But there is little sign of a reversal in the plans to close most of Oxfordshire's youth centres. Another council meeting will be taking place this week in an attempt to find other ways of keeping them open. Nicky and his friends have already tried raising money by washing cars.
As employees of the council, workers at the Eynsham centre were reluctant to speak out publicly for fear of losing their jobs. But privately, many are frustrated that the youth clubs have been targeted and are not optimistic that the decision to close them will be changed as a result of Nicky's protest.
The gates are set to shut on 31 March, Nicky's 13th birthday. He is hoping that Mr Cameron can deliver the best present of all by intervening in his centre's closure. In the short term, his mother has a more modest wish. "I would really like David Cameron to reply to Nicky's letter – a personal response from him," she said. "He should acknowledge the fact that Nicky is so passionate about his youth club."
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