Mark Pengelly is a journalist and digital media professional who represents Mount Hermon ward on Woking Borough Council.
A youth council, or some similar initiative, is a great way of trying to ensure that the voice of young people is heard in local government.
In Woking, we have a particularly bright and lively group of 13- to 19-year-olds who come to the Civic Offices each month. For about two hours, the grey suits and golf club ties of older councillors must make way for the hoodies and McDonald’s uniforms sported by their younger counterparts. During the past year, we have discussed subjects from domestic violence to national politics, and pretty much everything in between.
My role as one of the borough council’s representatives is one I particularly enjoy, since I can think of no greater mission than to encourage young adults to find, nurture, and use their democratic voice. By urging talented teens to take an interest in the battle of ideas, youth councils like ours are surely laying the groundwork for better politics and government in future.
The flip side of giving young people a voice, of course, is that they might not always say the words you would like to hear. But we mustn’t shy away from that.
It was in this spirit that I recently attended a debate held in a local church, at which members of the youth council were invited to speak. The chosen subject, ‘Is the government being fair to the younger generation’, aroused lots of strong opinion – much of it critical of the status quo.
One issue at the top of speakers’ minds was housing. That’s perhaps not surprising in leafy suburban Surrey: the average price of a home in Woking is currently more than £450,000, according to property website Rightmove.
Being born in an affluent part of the UK was a double-edged sword, the speakers complained, as it was likely to mean having to move far away from their family homes in order to settle down.
The other glaring issue was the growing cost of a university education – something rightly or wrongly seen as essential, given the poor esteem in which vocational qualifications are sometimes held by parents. Personally, I think this is wrong: university isn’t for everyone, and many vocational skills are every bit as badly needed as academic ones.
Nevertheless, the young speakers addressed an audience who had mostly paid to receive a university education. My generation was one of the first to have to pay tuition fees of about £3,000 a year. Even this figure is less than a third of the annual charge faced by the current crop of students.
Beyond this, there’s the general accumulation of subsidies and privileges from which prior generations benefited, which younger people either don’t have or cannot expect. A child born in the 1950s might have grown up in a council house, attended university and been paid to do so, bought their own family home at a reasonable price, and enjoyed a heavily-subsidised commute into work, before retiring with a generous defined-benefit pension supplemented by a top-up from the state.
None of this lies within the grasp of young people today. And to make matters worse, the Government has targeted working-age benefits to reduce the deficit, rather than those that are still offered more or less indiscriminately to older people.
This has contributed to a worrying malaise. After the Second World War, baby boomers were all but guaranteed a life better than that of their parents. Even kids of my generation, who grew up in the 1990s, seemed fairly self-confident that we had good prospects for a happy future. But given the growing weight of issues such as housing and the cost of education, some of today’s young people are becoming despondent. This loss of confidence in the system poses a huge challenge to our society, and is one that the government must measure up to.
Addressing the concerns of young people is not only the right thing to do, but it is also electorally sound in the long run. After all, the current cohort of Conservative voters won’t last forever. If we are not careful, they could be replaced by a generation of frustrated younger electors who feel that our party offers opportunities only to those who already have them.
At least one of the ideas mooted during the debate would be relatively simple to address. One speaker suggested extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds – an idea that has already been trialled successfully in the 2014 Scottish independence vote, and is no doubt likely to be used the next time around.