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No Work and No Play

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What should local authorities do when faced with youth unemployment, child obesity, increased gang activity, and rioting teens? Cut children's services!

As councils respond to the Coalition government's austerity agenda, a gamut of programs and facilities has come under the knife. These range from Sure Start Centres for under-fives to Adventure Playgrounds for adolescents. Children at all stages of development will be affected, but those from low-income households will feel the cuts most deeply.

Early intervention is cited as 'the most cost-effective way of reducing violence in later life' . Yet in 2011, 124 Sure Start Centres across England were discontinued and in some of the country's most deprived areas, like Islington, Knowsley and Tower Hamlets, there were cuts of £100 or more per child this year. The threat of additional Sure Start Centre closures in 2012 sparked protests across the country, in metropolises like Manchester and Liverpool and in smaller communities like Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.

After-school, breakfast, and holiday clubs are also endangered. When childcare structures are destabilised, working parents find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Coalition government strives to wean the able-bodied away from benefits, but on the other, its austerity mission chips away at the childcare families, especially single parents, require to enter or to remain in the workforce. But it's not just parents who are finding it impossible to gain a foothold on the career ladder in the current political and economic environment.

Britain's youth unemployment rate hovers at 22.5%. With the rise in university tuition fees, and England's decision to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance, the future looks bleak for children from low income households. Many of the youths represented by these figures may never acquire the education, skills, or opportunity to achieve steady, gainful employment or earn a taxable income.

In London riot flashpoints like Brixton, Camden, Clapham and Battersea, older children will find fewer resources for play, sport, and extra-curricular learning. Despite a 28% cut to its budget, Lambeth Council has managed to save many of its front-line youth services but Councillor Steve Reed has also stated: 'the Government's funding cuts have hit Lambeth harder than areas like Richmond where funding per capita has actually increased.' Other areas haven't made children's services a priority. Earlier this year, Camden council cut its £2.8 million play provision to £1.5 million although funding to children's centres had already been reduced by £3.2 million in 2011.

Battersea Park's adventure playground for 8-14 year olds has long been a source of controversy. Last year, Wandsworth Council unsuccessfully tried to impose an entry fee. Now it wants to cut staff, with the idea that new, risk-free equipment will eliminate the need for supervision. Critics claim that the absence of adult oversight will create an unsafe environment and that the refitted playground won't provide enough stimulation.

Community activist group 'Wandsworth Against Cuts' (WAC) is circulating a petition against staff reductions at the Battersea adventure playground and is raising consciousness of 'Wandsworth's austerity agenda,' which it claims imperils One o'clock clubs, youth centres, public libraries and playing fields. WAC spokesperson John Clossick charges the council with being 'ideologically motivated' in its eagerness to comply with the Coalition government's Big Society initiative, and says: 'The council complains about rioting, but then takes away funding for kids.'

As local authorities gut children's services in an effort to reduce spending and balance their budgets, the Coalition government has passed a 5% income tax reduction for the wealthiest households--those earning £150,000 or more. This amounts to chump change for earners at the very top of this tax bracket, and there's no guarantee that tax savings will be recirculated into the UK's economy.

Children don't pay taxes, and they don't vote. For the Coalition government and councils aligned with its austerity goals, investing in their potential won't immediately reduce the national deficit, close budget gaps or attract conservative votes in the next election. Pressing austerity on the most vulnerable households isn't like taking candy from a baby. It's more like taking care and education away from a child, and giving it to the bigger, richer kid.