Pat Stewart is remarkable. She takes for granted that someone has to do what she does and it might as well be her. She set up a project in Gorton in Manchester called On The Streets (OTS). I made a Radio Four programme about it last autumn. It’s just a terrific project. Yet today it has no regular funding. It’s ears are full of the praise of every agency you can lay your hands on. The Council press office boats, “Manchester City Council is impressed by the work undertaken by On The Streets” and then goes on proudly to trumpet that they have approved funding for “almost £27,000”. Oh yippee. At the last count there were 369 young people who attended OTS projects, 3000 times. That’s £73 a young person.
“Is it time to throw in the towel now?” says Pat, despite, as she asks the question, sounding eternally optimistic. And she steadfastly refuses to criticise any of the funders or the council. She is endlessly generous about the agencies that seem to me to be strangling her project.
In 2001 Pat, who had brought her two children up in Gorton, went back to the area. A large number of kids were out of control and behaving anti-socially. The residents were terrified. So she, and a colleague called Rob Burley, called a meeting of the young people. The Housing Department, who bless them seem to have been constantly supportive, lent them their canteen. They thought noone would show. But 36 arrived. “They virtually insisted we did something and not give up on them” says Pat. At the next meeting there was 72.
The special thing about the way OTS works is that it focuses on groups of kids not just individuals. “Anti-social behaviour is a bloody spectator sport” says Pat, “I am not just going to deal with one person, I want the whole group”. And further than that they try and work with the whole family. “That way we leave the young person with nowhere to hide and no-one else to blame”. Tough language. Pat and Rob are insistent that OTS is a Crime and Disorder project and what they are doing is facing these young people with the consequences of their behaviour. Getting them to see that they have choices in their lives.
Pat is constantly praising the youth service in the city. “They were very very good, When we started they gave us the framework – insurance, child protection rules, Criminal Records bureau checks and all that”. But you can’t help feeling as you listen not just to Pat, but to others talking about OTS, that the youth service also rather resented their tough way of working. There is a blunt ness with the kids and an ease with making judgements of their behaviour which traditional youth work often eschews. “:These young people have a choice. They can carry on behaving badly or live decent lives”, says Pat. She is a great fan of ASBOs. “They put a break on someone. They are not a badge of honour. That’s ridiculous. They are one of the best things this country has ever done. Young people know when they are committing anti-social behaviour. They need to be told in a direct way. If you water down the challenge, they don’t take us seriously”.
Of course as the project became successful, the inevitable happened. The Council, in that dreaded automaton phrase, wanted to “roll it out”. But you can’t bottle what Pat and Rob do and just reproduce it in-house. Yet Pat is again endlessly complimentary. She says the Council probably doesn’t have enough money to fund the kind of intensive work that OTS does. They have their own youth service and they have to pay for them first. This woman is so damn conciliatory to the Council it’s remarkable. She wouldn’t be that soft on the kids.
So let me say it for her. OTS is successful. People in Gorton feel safer. OTS could grow if even more of the kids who have been through the project could be trained to be volunteers and workers. That’s what Gorton needs, not more professionalized youth workers. Manchester needs to learn how to invest in OTS’s innovation and grow its impact across the city. Yes, there are problems of scalability, as they call it and of unusual ways of working. But give me a hundred of those problems to solve and a tribe of Pat and Robs and their kids than a roll out of the idea through the Youth Service.
When I asked to talk to anyone senior in the council, about this I was referred to their press office. They all ran and hid. If you ask me, Manchester City Council needs some tough talking to, to be served with an ASBO and told to change their behaviour and fund this project.