Article: Death of a Service
Carole Pugh writes a heartfelt article in memory of 'Project 129', using the analogy of a death both to discuss the intense emotional aspects of youth project cuts and closures, and to investigate the causes of its demise.
Note: If you have been recently bereaved or have experienced an inquest into a loved one’s death, please be aware that these issues are discussed in this piece.
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person (Miller, 2000: 44)
Recent years have seen the decimation of local authority youth services, with much provision being closed or restructured (Jones, 2016; Unison, 2016). What remains often bears little resemblance to the values and styles of work that were previously in play (Hall, 2013; Norris and Pugh, 2015; Taylor, Connaughton, de St Croix, Davies and Grace, 2018). Research with young people involved in campaigns to save local youth service provision inspired this article (Bright, Pugh and Clark, 2018). This drew on narrative accounts of young people who had been involved in national campaigns to save local youth services in England and explored the impact that youth work, and campaigns to save services, had on young people’s political engagement. However, the personal way that young people experienced threats to ‘their’ services left a lasting impression, with many likening it to an experience of loss or bereavement:
And after all the cuts and things it was just the worst – it felt like someone had died. Because I had been seeing this person once or twice a week for years and then no more. I can’t see them anymore. That was it. (Jade in Bright, Pugh and Clark 2018: 320)
And for me [the service] has such a special place in my heart and if they had closed [the service] I would feel like a part of me would have almost gone with it. Do you know what I mean? … And I feel [the service] paved a life for me. To have that taken away it was like I was being robbed too. (Pip in Bright, Pugh and Clark 2018: 320)
These resonated with my own involvement with a local campaign to save a service, which shall be referred to here as Project 129. I had worked there as a newly qualified worker, and it had been instrumental in my professional formation. In response to the threat of closure an online petition was set up which attracted 1600 signatures in less them two weeks. The petition included an open comment box, a response was not required, but many chose to write publicly about the impact the service had. There were hundreds of comments. Many showed a deeply personal connection to a provision that had ‘been a life line’. The comments revealed an ongoing attachment to a service, and feelings of anger and an almost grief-like sadness, about its proposed closure.
On face value, the campaign was successful, and the closure was reversed. However, less than 18 months later, a further restructure made most staff redundant, announced the closure of the premises, and shifted the ethos and content of any remaining provision to such an extent, that it is hard to argue that anything remained. There was no recognition of this closure. For a while the website still promoted the service, with photos of staff and promises of help available (in the form of ‘signposting’). Its demise was obscured; hidden among austere local authority promises of ‘delivering more for less’ and ‘working smarter’. The ‘death’ of this service, was not acknowledged, it was ‘ghosted’ (Allan and Youdell, 2017; Bright and Pugh, 2019; Derrida, 1994). Only an illusion of its presence remained, offering tantalising glimpses of what used to be. This ‘non-death’ provided no opportunity to grieve, or to question.
The recent Youth and Policy article by Wayne Richards and Jo Lewis (2018) which reflected personally on closure of a Youth and Community Work course also resonated, highlighting that behind every headline are unseen personal stories of valued services, relationships and of the ‘impact’ they had on people’s lives. Whilst the figures show one element of the decimation of youth service provision with estimated cuts approaching £1 billion (Bulman, 2018), the loss of 3,500 youth worker jobs and around 140,000 places for young people (Smith, 2018), they fail to represent personal experiences.
The present piece is subjective and open to accusations of bias. However, it seeks to provide a narrative that acknowledges the personal impact of closures on services users, communities and staff. While recognising that the ‘death’ of a service does not equate to that of a person, this article usues this as an analogy and draws on the mechanisms we have developed as a society for understanding death to structure the analysis. So, in ‘Loving Memory’ I offer a post-mortem and inquest, examining the demise of the service, and conclude with an obituary and eulogy, remembering and memorialising this project.
Post-mortems examine how, when and why someone died, and seek to gain a better understanding of the causes. If the death is found to be ‘suspicious’, ‘sudden’ or ‘unnatural’, an inquest is required. In many ways, the cause of the projects ‘death’ is obvious, resulting from ‘insufficient resources’. Stringent austerity measures, and the imposition of significant budget reductions on local authorities (IFS, 2016) resulted in reductions in service provision. Non-statutory services have been hardest hit (Local Government Association, 2014), as local authorities struggled to respond to reduced central government funding alongside increasing demand for statutory social care services. The disproportionate impact of austerity measures on vulnerable groups has been highlighted and questions are being raised as to whether this was a ‘political choice’ rather than a financial necessity (Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty in Butler, 2018).
At this point I must acknowledge that the post-mortem analogy struggles. In our society, selecting an individual to die, because of insufficient resources is both immoral and illegal. We only engage with these debates in philosophical terms, testing ethical theories, debating whether ‘survival of the fittest’, noble sacrifice or pure luck provides the best justification. However, in these austere times, decisions between one provision and another means that some, rather than others, are left metaphorically, and sometimes literally, ‘out in the cold’ (Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2018). In this context, the demise of the project, which, prior to the removal of funding, was ‘in good health’, could be argued to be both ‘sudden’ and ‘unnatural’. The identification of this particular project for the removal of funding, despite clear local support requires further investigation.
Inquest in to the death of Project 129
An inquest is conducted in a Coroner’s Court; it is not a trial. It seeks to establish how, when, and where the death occurred, not who was responsible. The Coroner’s jurisdiction is inquisitorial rather than accusatory. I will attempt to adopt the same process here, avoiding accusations of blame, rather trying to learn lessons. At the end of the process ‘a verdict’ is recorded, the possible outcomes that will be explored here are: natural causes; misadventure; neglect and unlawful killing.
A verdict of natural causes seems unlikely in this case. There are youth projects, which are born, run their course, and then cease, as population and other provision shifts; young people stop attending, and no longer desire or require what is on offer. Sunday schools and Boys and Girls club provision both declined as demand dwindled (Jeffs, Coburn, Scott-McKinley and Drowley, 2019). This was not true in this case. Prior to budget cuts, and even as they began, Project 129 was in good health. It could not even be accused of failing to be able to provide evidence of this, an accusation too often levelled at youth work projects (Jeffs, 2015). Annual reports (Project 129, 2010/11 ) evidenced national interest in the provision – following a visit, the Permanent Secretary for the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) commented, ‘it was clear to me that you are doing excellent work’. Increasing numbers of young people were accessing the service, even as opening hours began to reduce. Qualitative and quantitative approaches to evaluation were employed: young people accessing the service for mental health support were more likely to turn up to the Project than to equivalent CAMHS provision; ‘distance travelled’ by those accessing the service on a range of issues had been plotted and measured. There were cost breakdowns as well as testimonials from service users about the difference support from the project had made. The fatal, inbuilt, weakness was that it was funded solely from local authority resources. As a statutory provision it was prevented from accessing charitable money. This meant there was no way to spread the risk from the withdrawal of funding. It also meant that there was no external oversight, no board of trustees, external to local authority decision-making structures, who might speak up on its behalf. While the weakness was internal, the same as an allergy or heart condition, the trigger was external. The ‘death’ resulted from actions selected, and taken outside of the projects control. These actions were taken knowing the consequences that would result.
In Coroner’s terms, a record of misadventure indicates that a death occurred while a legal act was being undertaken without negligence or intention to do harm; had the project taken actions which contributed to the cause? Perhaps the recent collapse of Vinspired could be viewed in these terms (Weakley, 2018). In seeking to adapt to new austere environments, they took risks in delivering contracts, attempting to stretch these to enable broader delivery of a wider vision, which left them overexposed. However, the extent to which this was a choice is debateable, as without taking these risks the future survival was already threatened. Misadventure implies some form of unfortunate incident or mishap; this does not seem to fit this picture, perhaps viewing this as a desperate survival strategy would be more appropriate. However, Project 129 was not given the opportunity to even attempt to take the risk that Vinspired took. While some staff expressed an interest in exploring options around forming a co-operative, setting up as a separate charity or establishing the project as a Community Interest Company or Social Enterprise, there was no significant or strategic support available to pursue this. Staff were required to explore these options on their own, alongside maintaining service delivery and re-applying for jobs. Unsurprisingly, after 2 years of fighting closure plans they ran out of the energy, and optimism, required to try to disengage the project from a local authority that was unwilling to let it go, but equally unable/unwilling to provide it with the resources necessary to continue. Most decided to take ‘voluntary’ redundancy, unwilling to partake in the ghosting of the service. They refused to support the illusion that, despite the removal of the building, youth work values and most of the staff, provision would continue. They had lost faith that the local authority believed they had any responsibility to provide holistic support for young people.
Perhaps a verdict that negligence contributed to the death of the service fits best. The project ended because of a failure to meet its basic needs. Reductions in council funding, allied with the non-statutory nature of youth provision, meant it was entirely lawful for the funding to be reduced and removed. The project was vulnerable, entirely reliant on its local authority parent, who decided that there were not sufficient resources to allow it to continue. However, neglect implies a lack of action, whereas, steps were taken to weaken the project following the first successful challenge to the closure. Evaluation was standardised and administrative support was removed, so the project was less able to make a case that it was ‘delivering’. Despite the many valid critiques of neoliberal approaches to monitoring and evaluation (Bright, 2015; de St Croix, 2018) this was an extremely effective approach; whereas previously, the project could ‘prove’ the number of young people they had helped, and in what ways, as targets and monitoring were ‘aligned and streamlined’ they lost the ability to show the impact they had. As services merged, streamlined efficient management became more generic, less aware of the nuances of Project 129 (or youth work more generally), and much less capable of supporting staff in exploring any alternative delivery options. Senior managers concerned with avoiding political issues associated with project closure, learnt lessons from their first attempt, and ensured the details of any restructured provision remained vague. The required consultation about the proposed new structure asked questions about a deliberately opaque model. It is not possible to campaign against a closure when it is hidden in plain sight.
However, another possible verdict could be unlawful killing. In this case, this would mean that a criminal offence of corporate manslaughter had occurred. This could only be recorded if the way in which the local authority’s activities were managed or organised caused the death of the service and amounted ‘to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed to the deceased’ (Thornton, 2016: 3). Again, the analogy struggles at this point, because the value of a project is not equivalent to the value of a human life either in legal or moral terms. However, given the approach of the local authority, it could be argued that they knowingly undertook actions that caused the death, actively prevented actions that may have saved it, and that, as its sole funder, had indeed breached its duty of care. However, given the stark choices faced by local authorities under stringent austerity cuts, they too may have a case for directing the responsibility for these decisions to national government.
Schedule 5 of The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations (2013) requires Coroners to make recommendations if they feel that that a death could have been prevented if different actions had been taken. Having considered the circumstances of the death of this project, what follows falls short of being recommendations, but are questions that beg answers.
Given provision’s vulnerability rested largely on its location within the local authority, I question the calls for a re-establishment of local authority responsibility for, and provision of, youth facilities. While I have no doubt that government should have a responsibility to resource provision for young people, I am tentative about recommending a return to entrusting this solely to local authority provision. Had the project had a wider funding base, and independent oversight, its chances of survival could have greatly increased. It would not have been solely at the mercy of local politicians (and national austerity policy), and could have exerted greater control over its fate.
The reliance on local democratic structures to defend youth provision failed, and while a statutory requirement for provision could have resisted some of the reductions, the form of practice could still be dictated. Consequently, I am deeply sceptical about calls for renewed commitment from government for statutory provision, and the warm reception given by the sector to such promises (NYA, 2018). The warnings of those who were sceptical of the creation of the statutory youth service in the 1930’s echo down the years (Davies, 1999). Before we eagerly seek the funding (and associated conditions) from national or local government we need to consider the lessons that can be learned from the recent decimation of services, so that any future provision is better equipped to survive.
In remembrance of…
Obituaries ‘actively shape “how societies remember”’ (Fowler, 2005: 148). They raise awareness of a death so that the wider community can send condolences. Writing an obituary in these circumstances announces the ’death’ of the service, which had previously been obscured, and acknowledges this publicly. The publication of an obituary represents collective memory; whereas the uncommented passing of Project 129 reinforces ‘organised forgetting’ (Fowler, 2004: 149). Obituaries tend to be fact based, and have developed from death notices that were issued by undertakers. Overtime they have become fuller, and usually published by a relative. An opinionative obituary, which offers an emotive and intimate account of the deceased, is used to comfort those that remain, presenting a favourable picture which highlights the social status of the deceased (Crespo-Fernández, 2007).
Eulogies tend to be speeches, and are less formal and factual, aiming to capture an individual’s essence. Van Den Scott, Forstie, and Balasubramanian (2015) contended that ‘eulogy work’ enables people to deal with the loss, manage emotions and convey the emotional energy that had been contained within the experience of both the life and death. Writing this eulogy acknowledges the loss, both to me personally, and to others involved as staff or young people, and seeks to capture the emotional energy that the project staff and young people experienced and the emotional work that was, in many ways the main focus of the project (Hochschild, 2003). While this piece may be subjective, it fulfils a social function, serving to provide recognition the of the value of the ‘life’ of the project.
Number 129: An Obituary (1985-2016)
The project began its life on a very part-time basis around 1985, operating from underneath a church, offering information, advice and support to young people 16-25. It relocated to a dilapidated youth building and then moved again in the mid 1990’s to a city centre shop front location. The project supported the development of a young person’s life handbook, which was written by staff, offering information and signposting on a range of topics. Still operating on a part-time basis, and staffed by part-time youth workers, investment in the service began to grow as New Labour came to power. The staff team and opening hours were extended (although it remained part-time), and numbers of young people accessing the service increased. The project provided information and support on a wide range of issues, mental health, (including counselling provision), sexual health, housing, rights, benefits, alcohol and drugs, homelessness and employment. Work to promote equality was also important, with the city LGB youth group (as it was known then) and Girls work also running from the project. The staff were also involved in campaigning and advocacy work around these issues. The range of services offered continued to expand, as pregnancy and sexual health testing were introduced, the published life handbook moved online, and advocacy group of young people with experience of accessing mental health services was established. The shop front began to struggle to meet increasing demand, additional spaces were required so young people could speak confidentially, counselling provision could be expanded and staff did not have to conduct confidential phone conversations from the bathroom.
This corresponded with the establishment of the Connexions service. While the project did not seek to target its work at young people who were ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training), many of the young people using the service found themselves in this position. Combining resources enabled the project to move to a larger building in the mid 2000’s, and to further extend opening hours, operating on a nearly full-time five days a week basis, with occasional weekend opening for specific projects. Tensions between the targeted nature of Connexions and the holistic approach of the project were acknowledged, and carefully managed. The 2008 recession and the election of the coalition government in 2010 began to impact on resourcing for local authorities, and consequently on resources available for youth provision. A series of restructures, which sought to address the reduction in funding began. Initially the project survived, although staffing was reduced. The size and cost of a city centre building now became a disadvantage, significant staff numbers were required to open safely. The first proposal in 2015 to close the building and ‘relocate’ the service was successfully challenged. However, a further restructure in 2016 effectively ended the provision, and by 2017, the building was empty. The counselling service was reduced, relocated to an adult facility, and has now be contracted out. Other elements were notionally offered through the council’s overall ‘customer service centre’. Although the closure of the service was never acknowledged, it had ended.
Number 129: A Eulogy
I worked here as my first proper job out of university. I learnt so much there. I learnt from the staff, from working as team. And I learnt from the manager, who created an open reflective environment. I learnt about quality assurance that encompassed tick box paper exercises, but located these within a much broader culture that actively, and sometimes painfully, sought improvement. I learnt about the importance of structures and processes alongside people to ensure good practice. I learnt about supportive supervision. I learnt about the process of considering and applying youth work values in a local authority environment, through ongoing discussions, debates and questions and through a willingness to fight and be obstinate. I learnt about the importance of having a clear rationale for any approach, and evidence to support this, to help you fight your ground and defend your corner. I learnt about the importance of knowing systems and not being afraid to take on management, and local politicians, if needed, and about how vital solidarity was if you do this. I learnt about the importance of ethical reflection, and of keeping this in mind when considering how and why you are working with young people in particular ways. I learnt about the tricky balance between supporting people with individual problems, but not losing sight of the systemic causes of these, and seeking to challenge these at a broader level, with (and sometimes for) young people.
I learnt how important it is to understand things from others’ perspectives; that listening is essential; and that knowing isn’t the same as understanding. I learnt from the young people. I learnt that ‘being with’ someone has a value in itself; and that time is important. I learnt that young people are not ‘issues’ or ‘problems’ and that just because forms have boxes, this is not a good reason to force people to be the same. For me, a holistic response is the only human response I can offer. I learnt that young people can have an incredible capacity to survive, and that providing someone with the space to regroup is a privilege. I learnt that sometimes it’s very hard to make difference, that sometimes it feels you can’t win, and that sometimes you don’t. I learnt that sometimes a small thing can have significance you don’t recognise at the time. I learnt that hope is vital to working with young people, no matter how big the obstacle. I also learnt about the things that can (and cannot) be laminated!
There can be a tendency to see a rosy picture when looking back. But I also learnt about poor staff relations, inadequate resources, management conflicts and failings, and I learnt from the experience of young people we didn’t manage to help.
I left there nearly 20 years ago, but it still forms my professional approach. A combination of the service’s ethos, the approach of staff and the challenges faced by young people shape who I am today. I can see the difference it made to me. I saw the difference it made to young people then, and, occasionally, I get glimpses of the ongoing impact it has on lives.
I see the gaps it leaves and worry about those young people who will find that ‘signposting’ is not enough. I wonder who will be there to fill those gaps, who will find the time to listen and sit alongside them and see the world from their point of view, to join the dots up …not to ‘process me, but to help me, the person that is uniquely, personally me.’ (The Heard, 2006).
I have no doubt that the approach and ethos are valuable, and will re-emerge. For now though, I want to highlight the gap that has been left. I want my sadness and my anger to be known. That something that was valuable, and valued, in many measurable, and immeasurable ways, was discarded so easily. And that its passing was hidden.
 The research was approved by the York St John ethics committee and protected the anonymity of participants. The quotes are verbatim.
 The project’s name has been changed. Some staff involved are still working for the local authority. Any association with the campaign to challenge the closure of the service was seen to potentially place them in breach of contract, and so identification may still place them at risk.
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Last Updated: 10 April 2019
Thanks to Graham Bright for comments on early drafts.
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Carole Pugh is a Senior Lecturer at York St John University. Prior to this she worked as a youth worker for a local authority. Her PhD at Huddersfield University explores youth work’s capacity to support the political engagement of young people.