Youth in Hebden Bridge – not all bad news!

The young people of Hebden Bridge have not had the best of press recently. This week, The Times published an article alleging (without statistics) that the town has one of the highest suicide rates in England. This follows a previous article in the Independent on Sunday, and a general perception amongst certain sections of the population that youngsters in the town spend most of their evenings drinking and taking drugs, leading to dependency, social meltdown, and eventually death.

Whilst there certainly are young people drinking and taking drugs in Hebden, in my experience it’s not much worse than anywhere else. The smell of grass on the town’s streets – and I don’t mean the freshly mown variety – is no worse than in suburban Cheshire where I lived before moving here.

However, there is a bit of a problem with things to do for under-18s. There is very little provision in terms of live music, as the local live music club (Trades Club) has a policy of not hosting performances by young rock bands or DJs, and not allowing under 18s to Friday or Saturday night gigs. There is not really anywhere for young people to go with lighting and shelter. There is a youth club one night a week but that’s not for everybody. We do have an excellent cinema but on the surface of things that’s about it.

It’s important to say that the drugs issue is not being ignored, with Calderdale MBC working together with other organisations like Lifeline Calderdale / Step 2 to help address these issues.

Back to young people, though. Just before I was elected 18 months ago, the Town Council set up a Young People’s Working Party. One of the campaigning Focus leaflets for my election (see pic) focused on the issue of youth provision and I was pleased that Hebden Royd were doing something about it. Unfortunately that incarnation of the working party didn’t really get anywhere. However, in late 2009, things started moving again. The indomitable Lesley Jones resurrected the working party and we held a small meeting with Calderdale MBC Youth Workers and a few other organisations providing young people’s services.

One of the ideas that was raised was that of auditing youth provision in Hebden Royd, and getting everyone together for a big youth day on Calder Holmes Park later in the year. The second meeting was held this week, and I was expecting the same small bunch of people. I was surprised and extremely pleased when the committee room filled up… and people kept arriving. People were literally sharing chairs and sitting on other items of furniture. Not only were there representatives of loads of local organisations, as well as Hebden Royd Town Councillors and Calderdale MBC Youth Workers, but around a dozen young people as well. I wish I’d had my camera to take a photo for the press release!

Lesley somehow managed to keep the meeting on track and we heard from the young folk there as well as the adults. They raised issues like a lack of access to gigs and sports, as well as a general lack of things to do and places to hang out. A separate steering committee – led by the young people – has been set up to plan the event in Calder Holmes Park, and will invite anyone and everyone working with young people in the area, from skateboarders to the woodcraft folk, to be a part of it. The main working party will continue to review and hopefully move forward other youth provision.

One of the groups represented at the meeting was Project X, a social enterprise recently formed to work with young people in the Upper Calder Valley. On Friday, they held a fund-raising gig at the Trades Club (no under 18s allowed!) featuring local North-African band Maghribibeat. I went along and had a great time. The main band were good but they were followed, unexpectedly, by Recorded Filth, a group of local youngsters who were much more interesting. Their performance ranged from performance poetry through rap (in both English and French) to R’n’B/soul, including a stunning version of Bring It On Home to Me. And where else but Hebden Bridge would a group encore with a comic rap about Necrophilia?!

It was a great night, and goes to show that local youngsters do much more than just hang round on street corners smoking and drinking. I am hopeful that, with the involvement of local young people, Hebden Royd Town Council can help improve youth provision in the area and hopefully prevent future generations from going off the rails.

Edit 16 February 2010: Anthony Rae has dug out some official suicide statistics for the area which do not support the sensationalist headline in The Times, although it must be stressed that the figures are so low that drawing any kind of serious conclusion is impossible. Also, they presumably don’t include any deaths due to accidental drug or alcohol overdoses.

No elected mayor for Calderdale – the least worst option

Calderdale council decided this week to say no to an elected mayor for the borough. When consulted, Hebden Royd Town Council also supported the view that a leader elected by the council was the lesser of two evils. I spoke in favour of that option, and would like to explain why.

Firstly, neither of the options is particularly attractive as they both put a large amount of power in the hands of one person, but central government is forcing us to choose one or the other.

However, many people have spoken out in favour of an elected mayor, saying that it is (i) democratic and (ii) what the people of Calderdale want. I would like to explain why I disagree with both of those points.

Would an elected mayor be more democratic? Well, superficially yes, giving every voter in Calderdale the opportunity to choose who runs the borough sounds more democratic. However, for me, democracy is about both representation and accountability. An elected mayor delivers representation, but once elected, there is no way of holding him or her accountable to the wishes of the people. Essentially, he or she would have carte blanche to do whatever they like for their period of office. On the other hand, a leader elected by the council can be removed by the council, so they can’t go out of control without facing up to the consequences.

But shouldn’t we ask the people of Calderdale what they think? Of course – and the council has done exactly that, in a consultation that I believe was flawed. I’ve dug my copy of the document out of the recycling (see picture) and although it gives a reasonably balanced picture of the two options, there is no kind of questionnaire that could be analysed statistically. All responses had to be written in the responder’s own words. No boxes to tick at all. However, the council somehow analysed the responses into six rather arbitrary categories. For example, the distinction between “option 1 – indirectly elected leader” and “opposed to an elected mayor” is rather subtle, since they essentially amount to the same thing. What does come across clearly, though, is that only 47% of people were in favour of an elected mayor on a turnout of approximately 1% of the borough’s households. That is clearly not a ringing endorsement.

At Hebden Royd, myself and others – including Labour councillors – expressed frustration at the imposition of this situation by the New Labour government. So much for local people making their own decisions. But, given that we have to opt for one of the choices, going with a leader elected by the council is clearly the least worst option.