The recent report into the Telford child grooming scandal confirmed that more than 1,000 children had been abused in the area. It is a shameful statistic and yet the story didn’t appear on every front page. That raises the question of how serious we are about tackling the child sex grooming that is happening on our own doorstep.  

To put it bluntly, as a society we have failed vulnerable young people, time and time again, in the cities and towns where they need the most support.

We desperately need fresh thinking and new approaches on a national level to tackle this abuse now and I believe that youth centres and youth workers must be part of the solution to this highly complex issue.

All the evidence tells us that grooming happens when children have limited protection from vigilant adults actively keeping them safe. When they lack trusted eyes on them. When they lack safe spaces.

Yet in the last 15 years, 800 youth centres have closed, that’s the loss of 4,500 youth-workers previously dedicated to giving young people a safe environment to go in the 80% of waking hours that they spend outside of school. Naturally many of the places that were shut down existed in the more deprived areas of our country.

Our charity, Onside started out as a single youth centre in the North West and is now a national network of 14 vibrant youth centres called  Youth Zones providing tens of thousands of young people with safe spaces and support in some of our most disadvantaged communities. Youth Zones are amazing places – full of over 20 activities every day including sports, music and drama. Most crucially, they’re staffed with skilled youth workers who build the trusted relationships that must be at the heart of tackling child exploitation.   

Our youth workers see young people every day, all year round. They’re uniquely placed to spot changes in behaviour, or when a young person suddenly has new trainers, or expensive mobile phones. They know young people, their peer groups, families and wider communities. And they have built the trust and relationships with young people that means they are able to intervene  when they spot early signs of exploitation (or indeed when young people disclose that they are being groomed as happens every month in some of our centres) and raise a cause for concern with safeguarding teams, working closely with local authorities and the police.

Youth workers also have a vital role in the community. The reality is that many of our most vulnerable young people are navigating risky streets before they even step foot through the doors of a safe space like a Youth Zone. We need to reclaim the streets for our young people and actively go where young people are. 

Our team at Manchester Youth Zone for example are tackling grooming head on through outreach work.  They send youth workers out 6 days a week, into the parks and outside the fast food shops. They are a trusted presence, talking to young people, stopping adults approaching them and removing young people from unsafe situations. They’re also delivering unique partnerships, teaming up with the local public transport provider for example to place youth workers on trams to spot grooming and keep young people safe.   

Since the Telford report, there have been calls for proactive efforts by the police and social services. I’d argue that youth centres, while just a piece of the jigsaw, must be around the table and part of collaborative, long-term solutions too. 

We are spending £2bn more per annum on emergency crisis care for children, by which time it is often sadly too late to prevent exploitation. We must  intervene much earlier. Services like our Youth Zones are in an excellent position from which to support the police and social services as we have a rich source of valuable insight into what’s going on in the lives of the children that are most at risk and the trusted relationships to make a difference.

Investment in more high quality youth centres for young people, along with proper joined up multi agency working in areas of the country that would most benefit would herald a concerted effort to prevent child abuse for generations to come. We cannot afford the economic and human cost of continuing to fail our vulnerable young people. Young people from places like Telford deserve nothing less. 

The author is chairman of OnSide, a charity empowering young people to lead, positive lives by providing access to incredible spaces and exceptional youth work.