THE lack of a permanent New Milton youth centre is leaving local youngsters vulnerable to exploitation by drug dealers and has been blamed for an increase in anti-social behaviour.
Amid continued efforts to secure a new site for a facility for children and teenagers following the sell-off of the Phoenix Centre, town council youth services manager Silma Ramsaywack spoke out to the A&T about the desperate need to provide a service soon.
She referred to claims made by an all-parliamentary group on knife crime that larger increases in these offences had been seen in areas that had suffered the severest cuts to youth provision. These include Cambridge, Croydon and Acton.
Although there has been no such rise in New Milton, Mrs Ramsaywack pointed out there had been a recent surge in anti-social behaviour.
Incidents had more than tripled in the Fernhill area, as well as in parts of Ashley and the North Milton Estate, she said, arguing it was “no coincidence” this followed the loss of the youth centre.
“Our young people are at risk of being targeted by opportunists,” she claimed.
“With no youth club to go to there is a lack of support and guidance that suitably qualified youth workers can provide. Without this, some young people find family and role models outside of the home among inappropriate individuals.”
She also attributed growing concerns in schools and sports clubs about drug use among young people to the youth centre’s loss.
Furthermore, it was blamed for preventing police from building relationships with young people, as such facilities allow for visits from officers to develop trust.
“The young people themselves in a recent survey conducted by the town council stated that they needed to feel safer in New Milton, and to have more activities available to them as would be the case in the youth centre,” Mrs Ramsaywack said.
“The results of the survey showed the young people’s needs are very basic. Their main requirement is somewhere to ‘hang out’ with friends, but also somewhere they can buy food and learn to cook.
“Planned activities at a youth club, computer games and help with their mental health were other priorities.”
The rise in anti-social behaviour was revealed in statistics comparing the period of June 2015 to September 2016, when the Phoenix Centre still hosted the youth club, with June 2017 to September 2018, when this service stopped.
Hampshire County Council sold the Culver Road centre to the Education Funding Agency in 2017, 30 years after it was opened in a blaze of publicity by billionaire Virgin entrepreneur Richard Branson.
It is currently leased to Eaglewood, a facility run by Arnewood School for children who have difficulty accessing mainstream education.
As reported in the A&T, the town council was dismayed by the sell-off and has been trying to find a new venue for New Milton’s younger residents ever since.
Earlier this year, its finance and general purposes committee voted to siphon up to £9,000 into kick-starting plans to build a new permanent youth hub for the town.
Local horticulture company Double H Nurseries had expressed interest in handing over a piece of its land in Gore Road, near the Willow Barn Restaurant and Hotel, for the development. The town council is still reviewing this site, while looking into whether there are any other options in the area.
Cllr Steve Clarke, the town council’s planning committee chairman, said: “We hope to provide a youth centre close to the site of the old one.
“We are working with landowners in the hope this can happen, but there are technical and planning matters to overcome. We remain optimistic, though, that a good outcome will be reached.”
Sway-based spudYOUTH, a charity workshop programme for youngsters aged 12 and upwards who are interested in a career in architecture and design, has been engaged for the project.
Its workshop members are putting together their own designs for their desired centre, and the group hopes to set up a youth charity to raise funds for building the centre and ultimately to own and run it.
Mrs Ramsaywack echoed a comment recently made by Croydon Central MP Sarah James that “youth services cannot be a ‘nice to have’. Our children’s safety must be our number one priority”.
This comes as MPs across the UK urge the government to review youth funding cuts and consider setting a legal requirement for councils to provide youth services.
“New Milton Town Council again is ahead of the game in its realisation that we need to focus more on our young people and ensure any future youth centre remains for the youth of the town,” Mrs Ramsaywack continued.
“The council is still trying to secure land for the building. We will then need to raise the money to build it.”
The town council is holding a fundraising event showcasing local youngsters’ talents on the War Memorial Recreation Ground on Saturday 10th August – two days before International Young People Day.
Taking place from midday to 6pm, the Youth Music and Cultural Festival will feature demonstrations of activities such as skateboarding, YBall and Clubbercise, with refreshments on offer including a barbecue, pizza and vegan food.
Entry will be free, but donations will be collected throughout the event, during which the youth council and spudYOUTH will show their progress so far.
Mrs Ramsaywack concluded: “Any new youth centre in the town would have to be used during the day for it to be sustainable. We envisage this new building to be a centre for 0 to 25-year-olds. So the whole community needs to be behind the project.”