Giving agency to London’s young people: Dispatches from Southwark
It is a depressing fact that London now has the joint-highest poverty rate among UK regions and is by some distance the region with the most inequality. At the same time, London is experiencing increased incidences of extreme weather and up to 4,100 deaths per year as a result of poor air quality. Inequality and the climate crisis will shape the story of the city over the next decade and beyond, with their impacts being most acutely felt by young people and future generations. We are leaving a poor legacy for young people in London, so it is only fair that we give them more influence as we think about the action we take.
Too frequently, we fail to give adequate voice or influence to our young people. Engagement can be cursory, and in some cases patronising, failing to recognise the fundamental shift in power that needs to take place if young Londoners are to play a full role in a fairer, greener, thriving London.
Surveying young Londoners
One of the notable exceptions to this is the excellent work of the Partnership for Young London. This has provided a platform for peer-led research which puts young people at the heart of a discussion on the future of the city. Their reports on the sustainable future of the city and levelling up provide vital insight into what we need to do to give young Londoners more agency in their city.
Surveying over 1,000 respondents aged between 16 and 25, this research shows us that young people are desperate for a more sustainable city; they want fewer cars, more trees and better public transport. They are aware of their own choices as consumers, focusing on recycling and reuse.
They are confused by the term ‘levelling up’ and feel excluded from the conversation about fairness in the city.
Strikingly, more than half of young Londoners (58.1%) want to continue to live in London in the future. However, only one in four (26.4%) young Londoners said that they feel they will be able to do it—others expect it to be unaffordable.
By not taking these views into account, we are excluding around 3 million of the city’s residents, something we have to be acutely aware of as we develop our engagement and participation expertise. This has been particularly true during our work on the Southwark Land Commission
Southwark Land Commission
The Southwark Land Commission is an example of a project that seeks to address some of the fundamental issues driving inequality and poor environmental impact in London. Southwark Council wants to improve how land in the borough can be used for community benefit. Land can be anything from a park bench to a building used for sports and leisure. With the support of PRD and We Made That, Southwark Council set up a Land Commission. This is a panel of people from different backgrounds, communities and organisations in Southwark brought together to provide knowledge and recommendations to the council on how best to get more from its land.
To help inform the Land Commission, PRD convened workshops involving people ranging from educational institutions to faith-based groups to discuss their thoughts on how land is currently being used and their priorities for improvement.
These were well-attended and lively sessions, but we felt the voices of young people were missing. We requested to work with young people at the Southwark Youth Parliament to ensure that the commission gave appropriate consideration to the needs of the borough’s young people.
With a handful of pizzas, we went to Southwark Council’s offices to facilitate a deep group discussion with young people selected by the youth parliament to represent their peer group. We spoke about the spaces in the borough that meant a lot to them: green spaces used for mental health and social events were a recurring theme.
We then explored the things that the council were doing well. Young people appreciated new homes being built and the quality of green spaces. In terms of things that were not being done well, safety issues, lighting, gentrification, affordable housing, waste management and mental health were some of the key areas they felt were a deficit.
We then asked the young people to detail what they felt should be recommendations to the commission. These included:
- Green spaces, libraries, leisure facilities and parks are highly valued assets which need to be protected. Young people need places to study and unwind and spaces need to be safe and readily available.
- Youth centres are positive and need to be more of a base for an ongoing discussion with young people, in their own spaces, on their terms.
- Adventure playgrounds are not being used in the way they should. Young people need to be asked how they want these spaces to be used, so they can improve.
- Gentrification and affordable, inclusive and accessible housing is a real worry. Young people want to be involved in the conversation, with their families at home, so they can feel like there is a future for them in the borough.
- Cycle lanes are a vital mode of transport for young people. There needs to be an improved physical separation between the roads and cycle lanes at busy places to make them safe.
The information they provided added different and invaluable perspectives. It showed that young people are engaged in the big issues of the day and want to have a say in the future.
They provided specific personal perspectives on ownership and disengagement as well as highlighting the practical issues about space for homework and study in a busy, crowded borough. They expressed concerns about safety and, in common with the Partnership for Young London, their ability to stay and live in Southwark.
This engagement needs to be the start of a conversation and not the only one that takes place.
This will undoubtedly be part of the Commission’s recommendations and should form part of the Southwark Council’s response.
How can we do better going forward?
Engaging young people is not a ‘nice to have’. It is imperative to create better places and fairer economies. Through the engagement in Southwark and our other projects around the country, we have started to identify success factors that we think are essential to capture positive engagement with young people.
- Listen to young people’s ideas and perspectives before offering your project or perspective
- Involve young people as early in the engagement process as possible, working with them to create an approach that works for them and enables their participation
- Pay them and feed them
- Work with young people in spaces where they feel comfortable expressing themselves
- Enable young people to speak with and work directly with decision-makers
- Ensure you keep young people informed and involved in the process from start to finish
- Attempt to speak to a diverse range of young people from different neighbourhoods
- Provide them with feedback on the direct engagement
- Keep the conversation going