Westminster is the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world. It attracts visitors from abroad and other parts of the UK for its wide variety of activities as well as its national attractions such as museums, galleries and historical sites.
But what is it like to be a teenager living here? There are many good local facilities such as libraries, sports centres and parks. Moreover, transport links mean facilities in other boroughs are easily accessible. Independent organisations introduce people to the arts. Much of this is available at little or no cost. The situation looks very rosy.
This summer Isabella, a 16-year-old young woman who lives in the constituency, came to work in my offices for some work experience. Isabella was the youngest person that we had “employed” in this capacity – most often it has been a third year politics student. Her intelligence and capability was very evident from her first day and naturally during our conversations I was interested to hear her viewpoint about being a teenager in this borough. She kindly agreed to write down her thoughts and I present them here without editing because I believe they have a value, especially as out-of-school juvenile behaviour is a very important issue facing this nation with the increase in under-age drinking, drug-taking and general anti-social actions.
Isabella writes: “Many organised activities, events or exhibitions are set either with a maximum age limit or minimum age requirement, both of which preclude people in their mid teens. Teenagers are therefore fairly isolated from activities tailored to either children or adults.
This pattern is followed especially in locally based activities. For example we cannot go to a book reading at the library as we might have done at a younger age because the books all have pictures in them, nor do we want to go to a reading of a book for adults because we might be isolated in a room full of pensioners. The activities we end up doing, like going to the cinema or to a concert, or even shopping, are expensive and thus exclusive. Moreover, our companions come mostly from our school alone, so cliques and gangs are reinforced as well as the existing social order, if indeed there is such a thing, especially in regard to the boundary between state and independent schools. If free or low-cost community youth organisations do exist, they might be attached to a place of worship, which might exclude secular youth. The lack of things to do in the evenings and holidays for this age group almost certainly contributes to boredom, drinking and anti-social behaviour. This situation occurs everywhere; Westminster is by no means alone on this issue.
This borough is uniquely placed at the centre of a busy city, however, so it might be expected that there would be better provision for teenagers, but there is in fact a metaphorical desert of local organisations; Westminster City Council’s website contains information about 5 activities apart from those centred on sport that would allow a 16 year old to socialise with other 16 year olds this summer out of a list of nearly 300.
I can draw my observation from my personal experience; at the moment I go sailing once a week but when I was younger I did much more in Westminster. The demands of a life at school in another borough could be credited with this situation, but I am also inclined to put it down to the already mentioned lack of things to do.
There is a sense in the media that teenagers are demanding and threatening entities, which nobody can evaluate, let alone cater for. I would contradict this image; we are mostly adult, just with less experience, less responsibility and less money. However, it seems the negative but popular image precludes us from joining in the local community; provision for teenagers would be a waste of funds because it would be considered ‘uncool’ and underutilised. Looking abroad to Germany, however, we can view popular Jugendklub organisations as evidence that facilities in the local community can be widely used even by sophisticated urban-dwellers.
How might it be possible to make Westminster and other urban communities, where the majority of people live, ‘better’ places for this forgotten age group? My immediate suggestion would be to poll teenagers; as most cannot vote they risk being disregarded. Personally, I would go to a local youth club if it did not patronise me and allowed me to socialise with people of my own age in my local area. The essential nature of the school curriculum is regulatory and restrictive so time at the clubs could be used to make teenagers aware of skills for life and enjoyment that are not strictly academic, such as music, drama, sport or even cookery and appreciation of how the ‘system’ – both political and legal – works as well as essential financial procedures, (how do I open a bank account?, what is APR?, why do I need a pension?) Schools’ facilities (like those of Pimlico School, for example) could be used in the evenings and holidays to make the schemes viable.”
For many years adults have looked at its young people as a difficult generation with behaviour much at odds with their own memories. In the fifties it could be razor gangs and teddy boys; in the sixties mods and rockers followed by the happy drug world of hippiedom leading into the nihilism offered by the punk movement. In the eighties young people congregated in huge party raves and began the horror of the lager lout which still dominates our cities here and our young people’s holidays abroad. The one thing that young people seem to lack today is the ability to go through the time of their rites of passage without heavy recourse to alcohol or drugs. That, quite clearly, is because we haven’t given them the prospect of a wide social environment without such narcotics. That has to change and hopefully before today’s young people are looking down aghast at the antics of their next generation.