Fresh face in the big chair

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Manny Hawks is Lewisham's first Young Mayor and is now stamping his own style on the office, as Nic Barnard reports

Manny Hawks looks relaxed as he runs through his manifesto before meeting his advisers for the first time. "The whole thing was based around different aspects of getting young people doing stuff," he says, in the foyer of Lewisham town hall's civic suite. "For me personally, I thought there wasn't enough going on."

Lewisham's first Young Mayor has a manifesto, a budget - and a mandate.

More than 1,000 students voted for Manny in an election that saw 45 per cent of the south London borough's 11 to 18-year-olds cast their vote - more than double the turnout in the (adult) mayoral election two years ago.

Today, he's stamping his own style on the job. There's a chain of office - an 80-year-old gold badge first minted for the Mayor of the old borough of Deptford - but Manny, 16, who has just finished his GCSEs, is in Hawaiian shirt and baggy jeans.

The post was devised by mayor Steve Bullock, and is more than just another attempt to get teenagers interested in politics. Manny, from Bonus Pastor School, has a formal role, advising Bullock on youth issues. He also has Pounds 25,000 hard cash to spend on improving life for young people, and the support of officers, an inner circle of the three runners-up, and an advisory panel of young people including teenage parents, disabled students and others.

The lack of activities was a common theme in the manifestoes of the 40 candidates. "People always complain that young people are on the streets and they should be doing something. But then they don't give them anything to do," Manny says. His ideas include more meeting places for teenagers and workshops in the arts, drama, sport and music. But, like a canny politician, he's quick to play down expectations.

"They tell you you've got a pound;25,000 budget and you think 'Wow!' But when you think about how much everything costs, it's not that substantial.

It's enough to lay the foundations for the next person in office."

Publicity may be the most cost-effective approach. Many local facilities are under-used, he says, while others are poorly publicised. They also suffer from factions and cliques, he suggests. "The first people in make it their own," he says. That hints at another issue: street crime and gang culture. Daniel Chambers, 14, one of Manny's three advisers, says: "People who hang around in gangs have a lot of friends in our school. I don't really think they're the type of people to mug someone - they just think it's cool to hang around in gangs, and that's because they don't have anything else to do."

Dennis Hunter, the Lewisham official overseeing the programme, says: "There are a whole range of issues affecting young people. But in the end, whatever the issue - teenage pregnancy, housing or whatever - young people want to be consulted about the decisions taken on their behalf. They want to be involved."

In fact, young people are extensively involved at every level in Lewisham, from a 300-strong young citizens panel to forums on everything from health to police and local neighbourhoods.

April's election replicated adult polls, with identical voting papers, envelopes and black ballot boxes. Just like aspirant councillors, candidates required 30 nominations from their peers. The only difference was a compulsory one-day candidates' workshop on the electoral process and how to mount a campaign. Details were circulated to every secondary school in Lewisham, along with a lesson pack of quizzes and questionnaires on politics and local services, to stimulate discussion on life in Lewisham and ways to improve it.

The election has prompted inquiries from councils across the country, not least for the level of interest it provoked among students. As Daniel, who attends Forest Hill Boys School, says: "A lot of people still say children should be seen, not heard. I disagree with that. Children have something to say, they have a mouth to say it with and they should have a right to say it."

But neither Daniel nor Manny admit to long-term political ambitions. Both are hard-pressed to name a politician they respect, and see adult politics as having nothing to do with young people. Manny's verdict on a visit to the House of Commons was: "Fascinating, though I can't imagine working there. It looks like a museum."

So how do you get young people interested in politics? "Introduce it in schools and have lessons to discuss what we see in the media," Daniel suggests. That sounds like citizenship education. But Manny says: "We have citizenship lessons but they're more about crime and environmental issues rather than politics. Sex education, drug awareness and safety - like, don't play on railway lines, that kind of thing.

"We've discussed things like the age of consent, but they divide us into groups and say this side of the room will agree and this side will disagree. It's more like role-play. The only way to find out what people think is to discuss it in a debate.

"I quite like being proved wrong. It challenges you. It's quite worrying if you say something in a group discussion and everybody agrees with you."

It's hard to imagine Tony Blair saying that. Here's to the next generation.

* www.youngmayor4lewisham.co.uk

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