There’s a rather large elephant in the Ashbourne room. Amid all the talk of ensuring a bright future for generations by guaranteeing affordable housing is an embarrassing fact. We don’t really know what the next generation want. Unsurprising when you think how many parents struggle to penetrate the minds of their teenage offspring.
On the negative side we have also had a spate of crime which has been attributed to our young people – the skatepark, the cricket nets and cars are vandalised, Oxfam’s and this newspaper’s front windows have been broken. We have issues with alcohol abuse, drug taking and pregnancies just like thousands of towns around the country. Groups of teenagers gather every night on the streets and drive cars fast round the town. Two of our schools have fallen foul of the Inspectorate in recent years.
Thankfully, despite this bleak landscape, we are lucky that the vast majority are intelligent, respectful young people with ideas and opinions. This column is not against the children and young adults of Ashbourne. I have had the pleasure of meeting, talking to, and learning from some fantastic, truly inspirational, young Ashburnians who really want to be part of town life and love our values. The challenge is that this part of our community is misunderstood by all but a few parents, teachers and youth workers in clubs and sports teams. Their political representatives are, almost without exception, older than their parents with very different world views.
The generation gap could not be clearer – plans are being made and policies laid down by older folk who can’t be in touch with their constituency – and this particular part of the constituency is hard to access. To be clear, it’s nothing to do with Ashbourne. Around the country teenagers are thinking exactly the same thing to a greater or lesser degree. I suppose it’s just an extension of what young people have always thought. I left my home town in the North East in the 1980s knowing full well that I was unlikely ever to live there again. In my case the underlying factor was the lack of employment opportunities but the need to break free from parents and roots is almost universal. It’s also prevalent in nature. Right now we are surrounded by fledglings taking the leap from the nest. The fact is that most of the next generation have no intention of living and working in Ashbourne and time soon.
The consequences are that we need to rethink what we are trying to do. Building an Ashbourne that is fit for them is no longer the challenge. Actually what we are trying to do is something far more basic – we are trying to create a town which attracts new people to replace the ones we will lose in the short term and a town which attracts back some of our young people when they want to settle down with their own families. I know that this is bound to be an unpopular statement but If we don’t accept the situation we are going to miss some real opportunities.
So why are young people looking to leave the town? Two possible answers are because they can and perhaps because they are forced to. One of the ‘prices’ of living in a town with a historically good education infrastructure is that expectations are set high. For the older generation university was something for the few rather than something that many young people could consider. Even with the student loan system it is still achievable and, living where we do, going to university will usually mean a move away from home. Once the move has been made the first step into work is far more likely to be close to the choice of university than back at home. The second factor I think is that, while Ashbourne is a great place to bring up a family and retire, it doesn’t have the attractions for teenagers. People with families value the outdoor life, the sense of community, relatively low crime and the culture while younger people want the opportunity to go out and socialise in an environment with music and lots of other people like themselves. The pubs in Ashbourne are great but don’t cut it in a healthy way for the young people of Ashbourne. The lure of cities and university life is still great. There is a feeling that after being “pent up” in Ashbourne they are ready to let their hair down.
The final driver is work. There is a perception that there are limited jobs in Ashbourne, Derby and even Derbyshire. When you are young you dream of pursuing your chosen profession at the very top – the biggest firms at the highest level. Typically their Head Offices, with the exception of JCB and Rolls Royce, will be based elsewhere and so many people naturally trade quality of life for career. I’m not saying it is right but there is an element of gung-ho which you have to admire in our young people.
There are some startling implications of this. We need more houses because the people who replace the young people leaving will not want to occupy the back bedrooms than the teens are leaving behind. Similarly the student population in the growing university towns want their own accommodation. The businesses in Ashbourne want to make sure that the housing and the town attract the right people with the right skills to work for them. It’s no good to them if the housing is designed to attract retired people. It’s also possibly no good if all the housing is designed for senior executives who will commute to the cities and come back in the evenings and weekends. We can’t leave it to the property developers who are interested only in housing profit.
It’s probably too late to turn the tide but we need to find a way of engaging and listening. In return the youngsters themselves need to take the opportunities they are given. Wouldn’t it be great if part of the National Curriculum discussed this and encouraged engagement? We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to focus on creating a town that they would like to return to when it comes to bringing up a family rather than the town we think they want.