Published: 18:02, 31 December 2018
| Updated: 18:07, 31 December 2018
With an election just around the corner, Medway Council will be on the lips of many until the polling stations open on May 2, 2019.
But, as local democracy reporter Dean Kilpatrick finds out, there is another authority busy at work in the Towns – and it is formed of teenagers.
If asked for a stereotypical image of a teenager, sitting around a crowded table at Medway Council’s headquarters on a Friday night is unlikely to be your answer.
But fuelled by chocolate and fizzy pop, this is the reality for the 55 Medway Youth Council (MYC) members seeking to influence policies which affect their peers.
Originally set up in 1998 as the Medway Youth Parliament, the group helps represent those who – as the organisation’s motto goes – “may not have the vote, but do have a voice”.
Cabinet member Christina Arena, 17, said: “Those members now have a voice they can project in and outside this room. Young people in Medway can also project their voice and that’s a really good thing.”
Although sceptical folk might accuse the youth council of being a ‘talking shop’, two MYC members attend and participate in Medway Council’s children and young people scrutiny meetings.
Chairman Thomas Baldock, also 17, recently questioned changes to Waterfront UTC’s admissions policy, while the group’s own annual report is due to be presented in March 2019.
He added: “It’s a committee of councillors from different parties which is focused on scrutinising policy affecting children and young people.
“So we get the report – the very lengthy reports – and it’s our job to read through them and flag up any issues. We read every page and then pitch ideas when appropriate.”
While members spend time attending events in a bid to convince decision-makers of their views, social media also plays a huge role in their dealings – as you would expect from a group of teenagers.
But the youth council has taken it a step further, using a piece of technology to encourage any local young person to voice their views during a live meeting.
Digital engagement lead Archibald Bean, 15, explained: “Before, we had a lack of views apart from those in the group.
“The whole goal of the system we created is people can share opinion and that can be listened to. It allows instantaneous thoughts from young people, and that can be reflected into the council.”
Medway councillors are described as “generally” being engaged with the youth council – itself an apolitical organisation which received £33,839 of public funding in 2017/18.
The number of youth councillors – who are not elected – has rocketed from 10 to 55 in the past two years, while 10,000 young people in the Towns took part in the recent Make Your Mark survey.
Concerns over knife crime, mental health and equal pay were the top three issues identified by respondents from schools and youth clubs – with the result now set to shape MYC’s priorities.
Marketing lead Craig Liddell, 17, said: “With the vote, you could say we had a mandate of Medway’s young people.
"The doors it opens, the places we’ve been. We are still young, but the difference we make is quite significant...” vice-chairman Roli Enonuya
“I think that opened the eyes of some councillors and made them realise the youth council is well received and they should really pay attention to the stuff we are saying.”
Oliver Branch, 15, added: “It’s a testament to how far we’ve come and got our message out there as to how much our membership has grown.”
While members admitted friends thought giving up Friday evenings to discuss local issues was a “bit boring”, youth councillors who spoke to the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme said they had fun.
One of the newest members, 16-year-old Esmé Hehir said: “I often hear people say we’re not going to make a difference, but then they realise we can.”
The Medway Youth Awards, along with the annual conference, is arguably MYC’s highlight of the year – with preparation for next year’s event already well under way.
Ore Emmanuel, 18, concluded: “What we really wanted to do was recognise young people and educators in Medway who are having an impact who might have otherwise gone unnoticed.”
Both Ore and chairman Thomas Baldock are also members of the national youth parliament, taking part in a debate held in the House of Commons chaired by speaker John Bercow earlier this year.
It is often said the councillors speak way beyond their relative youth, with all sharing their own personal journeys of how MYC has helped build their confidence and skills.
The concept was summed up by vice-chairman Roli Enonuya: “We are still children, we are all under the age of 18 – and this organisation is quite fantastic with all of the opportunities it provides.
“The doors it opens, the places we’ve been. We are still young, but the difference we make is quite significant.”
And while none of the MYC members said their current role convinced them to become ‘adult’ councillors or politicians any time soon, it is clear to see how passionate they all are about the cause.
For example, it was decided in the summer that “votes of no confidence” could be presented against cabinet members if felt necessary. Sound familiar?