How could we go about setting up a Cambridge Youth Council?

…what problems would it help solve and how could we ensure that it worked, giving a positive first experience of democracy for young people?

South Cambridgeshire has a youth council – see here. Furthermore, it’s highly regarded by the council’s chief executive

…and by one of the parents of a former youth councillor

So why can’t we have one in Cambridge? Note via Rhammel Afflick that local councils have a statutory duty (ie the law compels them) to ensure that they must make provision for strategic dialogue with young people and those that work with them – see here from Cabinet Office.

“Hang on – what is the problem?”

Good question – because in order to show that democracy matters to young people, whatever happens has to have some sort of impact. It cannot be simply a talking shop that’s ignored by the adults, nor (even worse) can it be seen as a rubber stamp body that local bureaucracy uses as a tick box to ‘demonstrate’ that it has engaged with young people.

The headline problem is the very low turnouts at elections of the 18-24 age group. But for me it goes far beyond people not turning out to vote. Political literacy and people finding that their actions don’t seem to make much of a difference understandably put a lot of people off politics. Recent events, such as everything around tuition fees and the Iraq war demonstrated to millions of young people that no matter how much effort they put into engaging in politics and protest, it counts for little in Parliament. Blair, Cameron and Clegg have got a lot to answer for on that count.

At a local government level, not having local residents scrutinising the work that councils do raises the risk of poor decision making, or even worse, corruption. Whether it’s on Private Eye magazine’s “Rotten Borough’s” feature (see examples here) or in your local newspaper, there are numerous examples of #Facepalm #Fail – something not helped where local councils are ‘safe’ for the governing political party. Think of those areas that have not changed political control for a long time.

Youth councils as a long term structural change within local government

Having identified two big problems of low turnout/engagement and low levels of political literacy, we now need to look at what actions can be taken at a local level to tackle all of these things, and who needs to take what action. It’s one thing encouraging people to register to vote, but then what? I asked this question in this blogpost – and tried to work out some answers too.

I’ve mentioned a whole host of things in previous blogposts. Whether it’s putting posters up in places where people go to, such as supermarkets, or training community groups on how to use social media for social action, all of these things should not be seen in isolation or as short term fixes. Hence in Cambridge I’m continuing to call for a community development strategy based on a more detailed ‘mapping’ of communities in Cambridge.

There are a number of things councils in Cambridge would need to consider if going down the route of having a youth council. These include (but are not limited to) :

  • how would such a body would feed into decision-making processes?
  • how much funding and officer support would it need?
  • what budget would it have (if at all), and how would spending decisions be ratified by the elected councillors?
  • what would the processes of young people standing for, and getting elected be? (Would it be by area or by school?)
  • what rights and responsibilities would holding such office have for young people?
  • what training and support would they have access to?
  • what commitment would be required?
  • what processes would be in place if an elected young person found themselves unable to meet the commitments, or for whatever reason were found to be unsuitable
  • how are local councils going to protect youth councillors from social and mainstream media monsterings such as what happened with Kent PCC’s youth crime commissioner? (See here & the blogpost that followed)
  • what will the processes of feedback, monitoring and evaluation be?
  • how will young people be expected to feedback to, and take soundings from the young people they represent?
  • when and where will youth councils meet? How will youth councillors be expected to travel – and like the adult councillors, will they get expenses?
  • how do you make the whole thing ‘not boring’? (Noting this from Chris Havergal)
  • what if…young people don’t want a youth council?
  • what does success look like?

As Richard Taylor said, it’s not without risks

“That’s ***a lot of stuff*** to take on board”


That’s why a youth council cannot be a talking shop. Nor can it be somewhere where representatives come from said youth council be brought into council meetings & be told to nod things through as part of a tick box approach to consultation. Remember the concept of informed consent?

“So…what are the answers to all of the points made above?”

One of the most challenging questions is finding out whether young people in Cambridge actually want a youth council. Think of how maligned student unions are at universities – with notable exceptions of Francesca Rust – President of Anglia Ruskin University who has to be the most talented and competent student union president I’ve ever met. Note that she has more than one city to cover – Cambridge, Chelmsford and even Peterborough. She’s off to London for the next academic year for post-graduate studies. Cambridge’s loss will be London’s gain.

On whether young people want a youth council, it’s not a simple ‘yes/no’ decision. Many of the questions above would need to be answered first – in particular rights, responsibilities, budgets, process of election, term of office and commitment.

“How would you go about finding out the answers?”

Asking the young people themselves – but in a planned, sequenced and systematic manner. What are the things they need to be educated about first? What are the decisions that they are going to be asked to make? What are the forums for engagement? Schools? Youth clubs? Entertainment venues? Something online? Note that youth engagement using social media is all too often ‘miss’ rather than ‘hit’. As Rhammel Afflick told me not so long ago, things aimed at young people do not have to contain graffiti!

“…planned, sequenced and systematic manner…that’s a bit to public admin-wonk-speak for me”

It’s another way of saying: “What are you going to do if the schools and colleges refuse to co-operate?” Remember that one or two big institutions here have got form when it comes to not responding to outreach – even from elected city councillors.

You’ve also got the challenge of resistance from councillors and council officials. Not just from an ideological perspective, but from a ‘not wanting extra work without extra funding’ perspective.

I called my congressman and he said, quote: “I’d like to help ya son, but you’re too young to vote!

A little bit of Eddie Cochran rock’n’roll there.

Linking the youth council with wider initiatives & organisations

Of which there are many.

One of the most well-known in politics’ circles is the UK Youth Parliament. But I’m thinking about far beyond that. Perhaps there’s something within the National Citizens Service, or with further education extra curricular programmes that could support this. Even existing academic courses on things like politics and sociology post-16, or perhaps in vocational public and uniformed services courses. One of the things that struck me about the latter when I was doing teacher training at Cambridge Regional College was how the participants had their own clothing range for the public and uniformed services course they were on. In part because of the outward-bound nature of a large part of the course. Finally there’s the annual Parliament Week events – Cambridge being conspicuous as having a very low profile on this. I want 2014 to be different this year.

Trying to sell an idea to a sceptical audience

Given the toxic image of politics, and how trends are showing fewer people are engaging in it, I’m in this strange situation of running not so much in the opposite direction, but in a direction that’s in a completely different dimension to existing politics. It’s a bit like all things European Union. The trends are showing a rise in support for EU-sceptic views. Yet those I interact with who might be labelled ‘pro-EU’ are actually a ‘pro-different-sort-of-EU’ to what we currently have and what those at the top EU tables seem to want.

Where do you start?

This for me comes back (again) to the problem of not having properly mapped the city – let alone not having a comprehensive city-wide community development strategy. Had we had both of these, then locating the various youth groups (and who runs them) along with the schools & colleges (along with their key points of contact) would be fairly straight forward. If their feedback is positive, then work on the best way to get the ideas & input of the young people – ‘at design stage’ rather than having a completed model built by a few adults and imposed on everyone else.

“Is there the desire from enough adults to want to make this work, let alone the young people?”

Horribly difficult question. My heart says “Yes”  but at the moment, my head is saying “No”.

“Why so?”

Heart says “Yes” because from the conversations I’ve had with sixth formers at college open evenings late last year, and with the NCS Cambridgeshire graduates, there seems to be a genuine desire from enough of them to make a real impact. My head says “No” because of my experiences within the civil service and with my local councillors. My instinct tells me that they have other priorities that they would like (or rather feel compelled) to deal with first – not least due to the funding cuts of recent years. (Happy to be proved wrong on this). But as the minutes of the public questions at a recent local council meeting show (see here), I can’t help but feel that local councillors are waiting for someone else to make the first move.


2 thoughts on “How could we go about setting up a Cambridge Youth Council?

  1. The youth council at Huntingdon has been established for over fifteen years so south Cambridgeshire is not the only area that takes young people’s views seriously. The National Youth Parliament was a casualty of austerity in Cambridge and thought to be to expensive to support.

    As your head/heart dilemma points the key points for constructive engagement have to be young people’s genuine inclusion and adults committed to listening and providing long term support. This is often sadly lacking at a local and national level and how you get adults to value what young people bring to the table is a conundrum I will take to the grave.

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