THE future of Wiltshire youth centres is on the agenda at the next Malmesbury Area Board as the unitary authority looks for ways to slash its youth services budget.

The announcement earlier this month that the unitary authority was aiming to cut £120 million from its budget over the next four years and wants to reduce the £1.3 million it spends on the youth service by £500,000 next year. It has prompted fears that youth centres across the county, including Malmesbury, could be shut down.

A public consultation setting out four cost saving options has already started, but area board councillors have organised a special presentation at the meeting on March 5 in the town hall.

In Malmesbury, where the leased youth centre building was extended last year at a cost of more than £100,000 to include an indoor skate park, parents and former users rallied to support a campaign calling on the council not to make the cuts.

Alison Cross Jones, manager at HEALS, which helps vulnerable people in the town, said the centre provided a vital service in a town where there was little enough for young people to do already.

“Malmesbury is one of the few youth centres in the county that has a bridging project,” she explained.

The youth group caters for young people with special educational needs and disabilities, providing trips, activities and support.

“Those young people are already disadvantaged,” she said. If it went then the facility would be taken away from them as well as other youngsters.

“The youth centre provides much more than a traditional youth centre. I think it is vital to Malmesbury.”

She also paid tribute to the staff. “The youth workers we have had in Malmesbury are absolutely fab. They have built up a very good rapport with the young people.”

An online petition to stop the cuts garnered more than 1,500 signatures in a matter of days. Facebook was also buzzing with angry and concerned comments.

One Malmesbury client, Maria Hatton said the centre had helped her with advice, someone to talk to and even designing her own prom dress.

“I created friends and became happy and to think now that a younger child might not have the chance to do the same is quite upsetting , all in all a fabulous place that keeps young adults away from the town.”

Erin Reeves added her support. “The youth centre in my town has given me so much support through difficult times as a teenager, it would be a horrendous shame for them to shut down and to not offer the same support to younger people.”

Youth worker Saxone Barton said youth centres were the highlight of the week for those growing up in rural areas.

“I found youth workers easy to talk to and easy to access. And I feel that a lot of young people may feel the same, which is why I became a youth worker. I think it's an amazing service and to see it deteriorate would be a massive loss to communities,” she stated.

Wiltshire Council is consulting on four options – keeping the current service but making savings, outsourcing, encouraging staff to form a public service mutual to run the service or handing responsibility over to communities to develop and run youth activities in their areas.

A statement released by the council this week stressed: “Whichever option is agreed for future provision a key aim is to target funding and resource more effectively and to continue to protect services for vulnerable young people.

“The council’s preferred option at this stage is to develop a community-led approach and to tie-in with the emerging campus programme.”

It said a relatively low percentage of youngsters between 13 and 19 used the council’s youth activities.

Laura Mayes, cabinet member for children services said: “The needs of the youth of today are very different from the provision we put in place 10 years ago and the future activities for young people needs to move with the times.”

She added: “The continuing challenging financial climate is clearly a significant factor, but we believe the development of community campuses is an excellent opportunity to target youth activities right in the heart of the communities they serve and to be able to continue to fund these activities in the future, unlike many other local authorities across the country.”

The report and options can be seen on Wiltshire Council’s website or Sparksite. The budget will be discussed by the full council on February 25. Email to comment on the review.