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Tower Hamlets revealed to be the youngest borough in the UK

With a median age of 30 and half the borough’s children living in poverty, campaigners warn of the dangers of gang membership and grooming

Tower Hamlets has bagged the title for having the youngest population out of anywhere else in the UK.

With an average median age of just 30, Tower Hamlets was found to have the youngest population out of every UK local authority, according to the 2021 Census.

But beyond a set of figures, no young person’s experience is the same in the borough, as the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service quickly discovered.

With half of the borough’s children living in poverty, Abdi Hassan, who founded Coffee Afrik CIC, a grassroots organisation that supports communities across Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney, argues being the youngest borough brings with it a lot of complications.

‘Young people are falling through the cracks’

Mr Hassan said: “We have the youngest borough in London and because of that it brings in a lot of complications. We have high grooming and gang figures.

“A lot of our young people are falling through the cracks and several are missing.”

The young people he knows of are struggling with mental health, poverty and social media pressures, and argues it’s children who belong to the Somali community and the white working class who are experiencing the most issues at the moment.

He added: “There is so much pressure on young people at the moment – right now the experience is so tough. People are really struggling at the moment and are at breaking point. If you are living like that you think, ‘why would I not join a gang?’

“On the positive side, there is a 22-year-old setting up accredited training for 18 to 24 years old, but that is the two worlds we are dealing with at the moment.”

The impact of closing down youth centres

In recent years the borough’s youth clubs have been hit by drastic cuts to vital services and it has undoubtedly played a toll on the lives of young people in the borough.

A 2021 report from London Assembly Member Sian Berry found that Tower Hamlets’ youth service budget was at £8.7million for 2011/12,  but this plummeted significantly to just £2.1m in 2021/22.

Baljeet Singh Gill, a senior lecturer in youth and community work at London Metropolitan University, told the LDRS no one believed the decimation of the youth service would ever happen in this country.

Mr Gill said: “As youth workers, we were there not to judge people and we were there to provide support for them but all of that has just disappeared. Young people had no access to adults who could offer a different perspective or those who could provide a different alternative to joining gangs.

“Young people are greatly misunderstood and vilified. They have really, really bad experiences and they find that sometimes they don’t have family who can support or are there for them.”

He added: “The way the media generally portrays them is that they are young people that need to be feared, but I think young people are brilliant.

“There’s this hypocrisy around saying they ought to be law-abiding citizens… it’s easy to say they are all drug users, well adults are all drug users and they are not vilified in the same way. It’s labelling a whole generation of young people on experiences of the very few.”

The mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman has pledged to support young people of the borough by investing £13.7m back into the council’s youth service which will see a major revamp.

Mr Rahman’s proposed youth service, called Young Tower Hamlets, aims to support young people as they move into further education or work, as well as spaces where they feel safe and cared for.

Young people aged between 11 and 19 have been invited to share their thoughts on current youth services available in the borough, as well as what could be improved.

When Mr Rahman spoke to the LDRS in February, he said: “All I want to do is make Tower Hamlets a better place than what I had as a youngster, I want my grandchildren and our children to have a better lifestyle than what we had.”

On Tower Hamlets being the youngest borough out of the UK, Mr Rahman said: “That Tower Hamlets is the youngest borough in an ageing country is cause for celebration.

“It’s in the young that solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow will be found. Where there is youth, there is hope for the future.”

However, Mr Rahman is well aware of the problems this can bring.

“Our young people face so many socio-economic challenges,” he told the LDRS. “As well as being the youngest borough in the country, we are currently the poorest borough in London.”

Mr Rahman believes through his youth service expansion, Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – which pays students to stay in further education,  free school meals for primary and secondary school kids and university bursaries,  young people will be helped to ”achieve their full potential”.

Generation-Z

When the LDRS visited the area and took a brisk walk through Shoreditch High Street and Brick Lane, residents highlighted that young people born and bred in the borough have also been joined by an influx of young professionals.

Paul Day, who works in a vintage clothing shop on Brick Lane said because the older generation have either died or have moved out, they have been replaced by a sea of young creatives.

He said: “It is because everyone is dying. Older people have very unfortunately moved away or just went. I think a lot of older people have moved out anyway.”

Reflecting on what the area was like during the turn of the century, Mr Day said: “It was a deprived area but it was still really creative.

“Around here it is younger because of the area. On Brick Lane even though people who have moved in and it is still expensive, it is drawing in a younger crowd.”

Balint Fejes, who lives next door in Newham but works in the area said Generation-Z, who were born anywhere from the mid 1990s through to the early 2000s, are drawn to Brick Lane because people “are finding it on TikTok”.

Whereas slightly older people who are still young hang around in Shoreditch or Old Street, Mr Fejes said.

He said: “Visually you can see younger people aged between 15 to 20 years old around Brick Lane, but for people aged 20 and above it’s Shoreditch and Old Street.”

On why he spends a lot of time in Shoreditch, Mr Fejes said: “I love Shoreditch because I love that there is a lot to see and do. If you are looking for fashion, music, art, dance or literature, you are going to find it in Shoreditch.

“So many students and artists live in Shoreditch.”

Meanwhile, local resident Ahmed Rafiq, whose dad’s shop has existed on Brick Lane for the last 40 years, says life is better for younger people compared to when he was growing up in the borough.

Mr Rafiq said: “I think they’re growing up better, the parks are better, schools are better and the infrastructure – everything is better.

“It does surprise me that Tower Hamlets is the youngest borough in the UK but I wish it well. It has improved but still, it’s taken what they refer to as gentrification for it to happen.”

What the Met Police had to say

Met Police said they were aware of gangs in the borough and were working with different partners to “divert” young people away from the lifestyle. They added that they have a “free flow” of information with their network and have developed a multi-agency safeguarding strategy.

A spokesperson for the Met Police said: “On the Central East Command Unit, which covers Tower Hamlets, the Integrated Gangs Unit – made up of seven officers – works collaboratively with partners in the local authority to reduce risk to individuals involved in gang-related criminality and serious youth violence – the aim is to divert individuals away from this lifestyle.

“Co-location with the local authority offers a direct link to partners, creating strong relationships and encouraging the free flow of information between everyone concerned in reducing gang activity.

“It also allows for additional focus in relation to safeguarding strategies that can be developed with a multi-agency approach, children’s services and exploitation teams.”

They went on: “We would encourage anyone who has concerns about an individual who may be being drawn into gang activity to contact police or our partners so they can access the support available to them.”

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