A football scheme and a bus full of hi-tech equipment are helping young Glaswegians to keep off the streets and out of trouble. Sue Leonard reports
it is a warm Thursday evening in Glasgow's south side. The earlier torrential downpours during the day have given way to sunshine and 15 or so boys and girls are running around playing a noisy game of football in a portable arena which, set up in just 30 minutes, turns Govan Health Centre car park into a lively area.
Across the way other children, aged 10 to mid-teens, are jostling for a place in a bus which boasts nine laptops, an Xbox 360, as well as music mixing and digital photography facilities. It's so busy, people are queuing up to get in.
These young people are having fun under the watchful eyes of four police officers, two in plain clothes and two in uniform, as well as a couple of youth workers.
The street football scheme Kicks 'n' Tricks and the Cre8 bus are a joint initiative with Strathclyde Police, the Glas- gow South West Regeneration Agency (formerly the Govan Initiative) and Rangers Football Club.
It was introduced last September to focus on youth disorder hot spots in this area of the city. Targeted at young teenagers, it aims to help break down barriers, territorialism and gang-related behaviour by providing an alternative to hanging around the streets.
The popular scheme has only been in the Elderpark area of Govan for two months but is well established in Hillington and Ibrox, where youth disorder incidents have dropped by 70 per cent during the times it runs.
While in many cases those at the centre of complaints were doing nothing more than gathering in large numbers, residents felt threatened by the noise and size of groups. The reason the youths gave for hanging around was the lack of facilities in the area. They wanted something they could dip in and out of and something that centred on football.
Underlying social and economic problems that foster low self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness often lie behind crime and youth disorder figures. To be effective contributors and responsible citizens, young people need to feel included and respected. Projects like this one are helping.
Govan, once the centre of the world's ship-building industry, is today one of the most deprived areas of Scotland. Almost a third of local people claim benefits, 46 per cent of working-age residents have no formal qualification and 65 per cent of households have no car.
Life is tough for the children. They do not get the opportuni- ties on offer to those in more affluent areas. A game of football and access to the wider world via the web is giving them hope and aspirations as well as a social focus and something fun to do in the evenings.
The new Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, was impressed when he visited the scheme last month on one of his first ministerial visits. It is just the kind of project the new SNP administration wants to see.
"Young people across Scotland make a vital contribution to the life of our communities and we need to help more of them do that more often," he said.
"This government shares their ambitions to enjoy life and make the most of their opportunities. We want them to realise their hopes for the future, not become the focus of fear in crime-ridden communities."
Statistics show that more needs to be done to keep young people positively occupied and away from negative influences. In 2005-06, more than 17,500 children and young people were referred to the Children's Panel for a total of 59,600 offences. They most commonly involved breach of the peace, assault and vandalism. The number of persistent young offenders those committing five or more offences in a six-month period rose significantly, too.
Mr MacAskill has pledged the government will focus on promoting positive social behaviour among young people, as well as dealing with the anti- social minority.
"We also need to do more to support and encourage youngsters with facilities, services and initiatives that give them something better to do, whether sport, drama or other arts," he said during his trip to Govan. He acknowledged that removing some of the factors that can contribute to crime and offending the three Ds: drink, drugs and deprivation was key to addressing them.
For now, engagement and diversion are working in this part of Glasgow, even helping to break down barriers between youths in different areas of the south side as well as the tension between groups living just streets apart.
Greg Statt, a community coach for Rangers, who turns up on each of the designated nights to offer tips and tricks, has been involved in drawing together a team of boys selected from the targeted areas to play against other teams at Rangers' training ground at Murray Park. As a result, a couple are now training with professional clubs.
David Browning, a youth worker with the Cre8 bus, which visits schools during the day offering information on jobs and learning opportunities, has also seen dramatic changes in the behaviour of some youths.
"We had a group of young people from Ibrox who were quite notorious and known to the police," he says. "They used to come along quite in- toxicated. Then they became more sober. It made me see we are making a difference."
Another indicator of the value the young people place on the bus is that nothing has been stolen or vandalised. Ironically, a piece of equipment was stolen at a public open day. As popular as the football, the bus has become the social event of the week for many. Even when the computers are down, the youths still stay and have a good time.
In the past nine months, more than 1,000 young people have attended the street football or used the interactive bus at the designated locations. Anything from 15 to 70 attend on any given evening.
Josh Walker, 12, heard about the scheme, which runs throughout the school holidays, from his friends at school and has been coming down every Thursday for the past six weeks to use the computers.
"If I was not down here, I would be hanging about with my mates," says the Govan High pupil.
Courtney Bennett, 10, was also attracted by the facilities. She used to be afraid to go out. "There used to be all this fighting and stuff going on," she says. "I did not want to go out, but it feels safer now. The computers are the best."
Sergeant Crawford Weir, who works in the community safety department, sees the same faces most weeks. "They get to know your name," he says. "There is a core we see who, if they were not here, would be hanging around somewhere else."
Some come for a short while, others stay for the whole session.
It is a hit with parents, who know their children are safe, and local residents, who feel reassured by the police presence.
"The key to this is the kids come themselves, nobody forces them," says Inspector Craig Ritchie, who has been seconded to the Glasgow South West Regeneration Agency to work on the project. "It's not just about social behaviour; the scheme provides a safe place for youngsters to go.
"Young people are very often the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. So it is very important that they feel safe," he says. "It also allows young people to see the police in a different light."
The complaint they have is that it isn't on often enough. The scheme visits one of the three targeted areas each night from Thursday to Saturday. Dale McDowall, 12, would like to see it in Elderpark more often.
"I had high expectations and it's even better than I thought," he says. "I wish it was here two or three days a week."
Since 2004-05, the Scottish Executive has allocated pound;5 million a year for Local Action Fund projects to support positive alternatives for young people. The money is administered through Community Safety Partnerships. Here is a snapshot of what has been funded so far.
Midnight football, aimed at 12- to 16-year-olds, runs between 10pm and 11.30pm on Friday nights, resulting in a reduction in the number of complaints about youths involved in antisocial behaviour.
A youth drama initiative and a project called Street Games for All, targeted at youth nuisance hot spots, provides two mobile pitches which can go into housing estates which have no games provisions.
A variety of free activities take place at night, such as five-a-side football leagues for 12- to 18-year-olds, delivered in partnership with Kilmarnock FC.
The Get High on Miles programme, designed to involve teenage girls in positive physical activity, also raises self-esteem.
The outreach project StreetSport Express takes sport to young people wherever they are gathered.
New services such as the Cavern Band Nights and the Papdale Youth Club have filled an identified gap.
Additional equipment for Stromness Youth Club and island swimming pools, along with longer opening times, have enabled existing services to continue and expand their provision.
Youth Only Zones offer diversionary activities at sports and community centres, including new kit such as Go karts and track, an inflatable slide and ski equipment.
A Friday night drop-in centre at Bonnybridge Community Centre has also been piloted.
Open All Hours is a scheme that provides low-cost leisure activities for young people; Cafe K, in partnership with Edinburgh Leisure, provides an informal Friday evening drop-in service for young people in the Greater Craigmillar area. The service operates 52 weeks of the year and offers 12- to 18-year-olds the opportunity to take part in a wide range of sport and leisure activities; a youth club for Sikh boys aged between 13 and 16.