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The second blog in our social infrastructure series highlights the need for additional investment in youth services and their long term benefits and lists some shovel ready projects.


  • The current economic crisis has hit young people disproportionately hard and widened inequalities, making youth investment key for levelling up.
  • Youth Link Scotland found the social return on investment in youth services to be at least 3:1.
  • ‘Shovel ready investments’ in youth work include providing a youth services funding guarantee, subsidising youth work education and reopening youth centres local to those in need of them.

Why invest in youth services?

Whilst Covid-19 has been lethal for older people, the wider crisis has been particularly damaging for young people. Children have missed out on attending nearly six months of school, young people entering the job market have faced record low job vacancies, and those in work are more than twice as likely to have had their workplace shutdown by the government. All of these factors are more acute for young people from low income households, with teachers in the most deprived schools being twice as likely to say that student’s work sent in from home is of a much lower quality than normal. The crisis is set to further widen these existing inequalities increasing the number of children living in poverty.

In this context, investing in youth services – the collection of optional recreational, support and educational activities which aim to develop the capabilities of young people – becomes essential for levelling up. Providing a place for young people to spend time, play sports and gain confidence, alongside access to a wider set of services including social, employment and mental health support, enables them to improve their lives and reduce some of the damage done by Covid-19.

Access to these services is important for all young people, but especially those from less advantaged backgrounds. Children in deprived areas are more likely to be obese, which, makes them more vulnerable to other health conditions. Children from low income families are also four times more likely to experience mental health issues than others whilst those in youth justice system are three times more likely to have a diagnosable mental health condition.

Investment over the last decade

Over the last decade, spending on Youth Services has fallen by 70%, leading to the closure of 760 youth centres. At the same time, youth violence has gone up, with NHS data showing a 36% increase in knife admissions for under-18s between 2013–14 and 2017–18. Research published by the APPG on Knife Crime & Violence Reduction has found that youth centre closures were strongly correlated with increases in knife crime in the same local authority (-0.7).

How can investment deliver the best outcome for society?

The benefits of getting it right

Investing in youth services has the potential to reduce knife crime and youth offending, which will lower fear of crime in the local area and improve wellbeing as well as reducing costs to the taxpayer (see Table 1). Beyond this, investing in youth services has the potential to transform young people’s lives. Violent behaviour is an outward expression of trauma and adversity and the benefits of supporting young people to improve their confidence, physical and mental health will accrue throughout their lifetime.

These benefits filter through to wider society. The confidence and interpersonal skills gained from interaction with youth services could lead to higher skills and earnings as adults, increasing their contribution to the economy and the tax base. Improving the mental health of young people, could also help to reduce the need for more serious interventions in the longer term (see Table 1).

One report found the social returns on four youth clubs in the North West to be twice the cost of provision, whilst a review by Youth Link Scotland in 2016 found that the social return on investment in youth services was at least three to one. The potential fiscal value of some of these benefits is illustrated below.

Table 1 – Fiscal savings associated with investment benefits

Illustrative benefits

Estimated fiscal saving

Youth offending - reduction in time spent at Junior Attendance Centres (JACs)

£27 per person per hour

Mental health - reduction in the number of young people who need to be referred to a single disciplinary Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service team

£4,814 per case

Physical health – reduction in number of young people developing Type 2 diabetes due to poor health and obesity

£2,982 per person per year

Conditions all investments must meet

For investment to deliver these benefits, the youth services infrastructure must be ‘fit for purpose’. Services must be:

  1. accessible to those from deprived backgrounds;
  2. joined up with other services;
  3. broad based – offering recreational, educational and support services.

‘Shovel ready’ investments in this area

To make sure that vital services are not withdrawn as Covid-19 squeezes council finances, the government should first:

  • Provide a Youth Services Guarantee of government funding for a universal minimum provision, co-designed with local young people, as recommended by the Home Affairs Committee on Serious Youth Violence. This would help councils and voluntary sector organisations to keep services going.

They should then look to stimulate demand and aid the economy’s recovery by providing training, jobs and capital investment:

  • Invest in a high-quality Youth Workforce, committing to a minimum offer for youth workers. This could include funding a register for youth workers, expanding training bursaries for youth work students and subsidising youth work degrees, ensuring that there is a clear pathway for progression.
  • Recommit to capital investment to reopen local youth centres as trailed by Sajid Javid last September. Importantly, this should focus on opening centres in deprived neighbourhoods and rural areas. The government should work with local authorities and community groups to facilitate the purchase, development and maintenance of local youth centres as public and community owned assets.

How much will it cost?

Organisations such as Youth Link Scotland and YMCA are calling for a return to pre-austerity levels of investment. The YMCA estimate that annual real expenditure in England and Wales has fallen by £1bn since 2010, so we should expect the additional annual investment required to be at least this much. This is equivalent to 27,000 experienced youth workers and is much higher than the current government spending commitments.

How will we know if the investment has been successful?

Attributing causality can be difficult for youth services as interventions are often informal and just one of many influences in young people’s lives. Yet this is less important when youth services are considered as part of a wider system of social infrastructure; it is the outcomes that matter.

The data on outcomes is getting better. In April, the Centre for Youth Impact started gathering data on the number of young people reached by current services and Public Health England’s Fingertips local profiles provide place-based information on health, and other outcomes. Measures that are particularly relevant for youth services include:

  • Percentage of physically active children and young people.
  • Estimated number of children and young people with mental disorders (age 5-17).
  • Percentage of looked after children whose emotional wellbeing is a cause for concern.
  • Children in the youth justice system per 1,000 population (age 10-18 years).
  • Proportion of those aged 16-19 with no qualifications (from Nomis).

To claim success in youth services, we must be able to show improvement on the current baseline:

2018-19 baseline: median outcomes for English local authorities

Physically active children and young people (%)


Looked after children whose emotional wellbeing is a cause for concern (%)


Children in the youth justice system (per 1,000 population)


Proportion of those aged 16-19 with no qualifications (%)


Estimated number of children and young people age 5-17 with mental disorders 2018


We already know that cuts to youth services coincided with an increase in serious youth violence over the last decade. In another ten years’ time, it would be great to be able to say that significant investment in youth services was associated with an improvement in the mental and physical health of young people and helped to reduce the inequalities between them, contributing to a more equal society.

In our next blog, we will be highlighting skills as a vital component of economic resilience for both people and places.


Fiscal savings are drawn from GMCA’s Unit Cost Database and are in 2019/20 prices.

The author would like to thank to Adam Muirhead, Director of Youth Work at the Trust for Developing Communities for his comments and input. All errors and omissions are the responsibility of the author.