Teenagers from a small town in Wiltshire have penetrated the local council chambers and are busy setting their own agenda, writes Reva Klein
It's a small place, Calne. The Wiltshire town's earliest claim to fame was that Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen there in 1774. Slightly more recently, experimentation of a social nature has put it in the news once again. While politicians in Westminster hold forth about creating a one-nation stakeholder society, a group of Calne teenagers have taken their stakes, and are making their voices heard in their community. They are not particularly precocious or politicised, and they are certainly not interested in talking shops. They just want to change things.
They are the 16 members of Calne's Young People's Town Council (YPTC), based at The John Bentley School. The 13 to 15-year-olds, who volunteer for a place on the council and vote in their own officers, meet monthly in Calne's council chambers, in the company of two adult councillors and a senior police officer. At these meetings they discuss and plan, to paraphrase John F Kennedy, not what their town can do for them but what they can do for their town.
Times are changing in Calne. The place is stretching, rubbing the sleep out of its eyes and coming back to life. After more than a decade of economic blight caused partly by the closure of its major employer, Harris's sausage factory, the town is reawakening. The Calne Project, an independent charitable trust backed by the town council, is a symbol of this regeneration and the young councillors are part of this movement.
In the three-and-a-half years since it was set up, the YPTC has certainly made its mark. In the summer of 1995, it worked with the town council on the redevelopment of children's playgrounds. The teenagers went into local primary schools to canvass children's views on what they wanted and then discussed designs with contractors. Earlier that year, a small grant from Rural Action (a national scheme that supports community-led environmental projects in rural areas) enabled them to cover an ugly safety fence at the community centre with plants and flowers. Other initiatives have included successful lobbying for and planning a BMX track for bikers and skateboarders. That idea was in reponse to local anger at young people using the town centre to perform their wheelies.
The YPTC is also supporting the establishment of a young people's drop-in centre. In a town with high youth unemployment and precious few diversions, there are a lot of youngsters with nothing to do and nowhere to go. This year, the young councillors are planning to publish a book, Memories of Calne, written by an ex-John Bentley student who now lives in America, to help raise money for the youth centre.
But their ultimate achievement to date is being chosen from more than 600 schools to receive a Barclays New Futures award. The Pounds 4,000 grant, given to projects which give children a voice, is being used to buy a computer to set up a database of the 50-plus young people's town councils around the country. Some of the money will pay for the second national conference of these groups, to take place at the end of this month - at the Swindon Hilton, no less. Among the speakers will be spokespeople from the Green Party, the National Union of Students, the three major political parties' youth wings, Charter 88 and the Young European Movement.
Organising the two-day conference has been a major achievement, but it doesn't seem to have fazed the young councillors. Jessie Whiskin, the 14-year-old chair of the YPTC, shrugs off the two hours a week they have been putting in during the run-up to the conference. She can't think of a better way of spending her time. "Basically, we're a group of people with good ideas and inspiration to get things done," she says. "We're seen as keen and brainy by the other students, but you don't have to be clever to be on the council. One of the reasons we're so involved is that we don't have much to do outside of school in terms of a social life. There's not much going on here, so we have lots of time."
Much of the groundwork has been done by Mike White, the YPTC's adviser, who is also a town councillor and a teacher at John Bentley. Inspired by the Conseils Municipaux Enfants (Children's Town Councils) that exist all over France, he wanted to see young people getting involved in his home town.
"Originally, I wanted to devise a way that would enable young people to develop a sense of ownership about the changes that were being planned for the town centre," he says. "The town is theirs to grow up in, and decisions are being made. If young people aren't somehow involved in that process, they will be less likely to value those changes. Since it has been in existence, I've become aware that the young councillors have raised the profile of youth issues in the town that otherwise might not have come about."
Everyone on the town council knows the YPTC's business, as its minutes are included in the town council's. Young councillors sit on a number of sub-committees, which convene in the town council chambers, including those responsible for amenities and crime prevention. And the YPTC is also represented on the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.
They do not attend full council meetings but they seem to know what is going on. Councillor Mercy Baggs, and Mike White sit on the YPTC as adult representatives and act as go-betweens. Ms Baggs, who has grown-up children and a grandchild, thinks they do "a damn fine job". She says: "I've told them, 'You're the most important people in our town. You're our future. Don't underestimate yourselves; you'll be the ones sitting on the council giving your opinions in a few years' time.' "
The Second National Youth Council Conference - "Getting Involved" - will be held at the Swindon Hilton on February 22-23. For further information, contact Calne YPTC, tel: 01380 850 516