If we want to combat violence and knife crime, community arts centres need more funding

 Arts and cultural activity are vital for human well-being – they are neither a luxury nor the preserve of the well-to-do

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 23 November 2018 14:32 GMT
500 Sure Start Centres have closed between 2010 and 2018, with budgets halved
500 Sure Start Centres have closed between 2010 and 2018, with budgets halved

My answer to most social ills tends to be: “We need more arts and community funding!” Under our current government, I want to scream this until my lungs explode.

I’ve been waiting for them to notice that the rise in violent crime among young people seems to have come a very short time after austerity and the brutal cuts to arts funding both in schools and in our communities.

Young people haven’t suddenly become intrinsically more violent. Rightful outrage at the increase in knife crime led to politicians shaking their fists in the air and proclaiming that they would get tough on these gangs and youths who carry knives. Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared earlier this month that he would make it easier for police officers to stop and search: “We will get the police to tip every young kid upside down and shake them until all their knives drop out.” (These may not have been his exact words.)

Theresa May, when she was in the Home Office, made stop and search trickier after it transpired that young black men were seven times more likely to get searched. I’ll be honest – if I was frisked every time I went to get a loaf and some Tic Tacs, I’d start to think that things were stacked against me. We can’t underestimate the psychological impact this has on a young person.

There must be a way to tackle gang and knife crime without making people feel like criminals when they have done nothing other than step out of their houses. If a kid is standing on a street corner at midnight polishing his harpoon then, yes, fair enough, politely enquire what he’s up to. We are not getting closer to changing the culture which leads to violence in the first place if all we do is stop and search.

Combating knife crime is clearly not just a matter for the police.

Ken Marsh, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, commented recently in The Independent that “violence can’t be tackled purely by police – we turn up when someone has been killed or seriously injured and there’s an awful lot that happens before that point”.

This is where the cuts come in. In 1995, I was part of a voluntary youth community theatre project which tackled the subject of homelessness after leaving care or prison. I was the only one in a group of 15 who hadn’t had personal experience of homelessness or prison (I know. You’re thinking, “then how did you get on the project?” What can I say? At 22 I was a shameless blagger). I saw first-hand what the impact is on young people who have already been written off as hopeless by mainstream society, and I saw how all that changed when these young people are given a purpose. It mattered if one of us didn’t turn up to the workshop. Our absence was felt, we were missed, and we were all an integral part of the project we were creating.

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.

Sajid Javid agreed with the mayor of London that it’s a long-term endeavour to eradicate knife culture: “If you’re trying to take children away from a life of crime, trying to deal with the challenges they have in their lives, that will take time. [Early] intervention is also something that should happen.” Yes, Sajid, yes! But that costs money and this government has slashed funding which used to be allocated to services that bind communities, and gives people somewhere to go and belong without it costing them.

More than 500 Sure Start centres have closed between 2010 and 2018, with budgets halved. If you’ve never used a Sure Start centre, it is a place where parents from all walks of life can come in with their children and spend time with one another, feel less lonely in many cases and get free advice from health and social care workers. Where do those parents get this support now? Where can young people hang out and just be themselves instead of emulating hard nuts in their manor? Or whatever the vernacular is now. I’m from the Eighties.

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Local authority spending on culture has been cut by a third between 2009 and 2017. That’s more than a billion quid cut from arts funding. Arts and cultural activity are vital for human well-being – they are neither a luxury nor the preserve of the well-to-do.

Arts groups, theatre groups and mentors all empower young people to discover who they are. They give a sense of purpose, of belonging.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Temi Mwale, founding director of The 4Front Project, an organisation which aims to support young people affected by violence and give them the resources and skills to resist being sucked into knife culture. The government should be funding projects like Temi’s if it is serious about saving our youth.

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