London youth ambassador and former Territorial Army major James Cleverly tells Andrew Mickel how he wants to solve the capital’s gang problem
The Conservative administration’s attempts to tackle youth violence in London have had a tough eight months since the party took control of the London Assembly in May.
First, Ray Lewis, the youth worker named as deputy mayor to lead the initiatives, had to resign in July within two months of being appointed amid allegations of misconduct in a previous role.
Then mayor Boris Johnson’s strategy for change, Time for Action, which was launched in November, was criticised by the Scouting Association for compelling some young people to join youth organisations.
Now the deputy mayor post has been replaced by a youth ambassador, which the mayor’s critics have labelled a downgrading of interest in young people.
In January, James Cleverly was appointed to the role of ambassador. “Time for Action is very much the core business in the immediate term,” he says. “More generally, I’m a conduit between the mayor and young Londoners – explaining to them what we’re doing, but also providing a very direct channel of feedback.”
He may not yet have the knowledge, but he does have the zeal of Johnson. Cleverly’s role is by no means unique. London already has cross-borough anti-gang initiatives and organisations that collaborate on youth crime. Cleverly, by contrast, has no grant-giving pot of money, no powers and no statutory responsibilities. But he has one crucial resource to get things done – the mayor’s ear – and says the right people need to be brought together to work on projects.
“Like many things in London government we don’t have hard power,” he says. “But sometimes all these organisations need is some exposure and advocacy, and that’s something we can easily provide.
“Others need their heads knocked together. For example, with Project Daedalus [which supports first-time offenders] we needed the agreement of the prison service, local authorities and so on. We’ve been able to get them around a table, and we’re getting some good movement. If you ask what I am doing different, I don’t know. But it wasn’t happening before and it is now.”
The contrast with Ray Lewis is telling. Lewis was unelected as an assembly member, Cleverly sits on the board of the London Development Agency and is on the Metropolitan Police Authority. Lewis worked on Eastside Young Leaders Academy, while Cleverly had a privileged upbringing in Lewisham, south London. Perhaps the key difference is that Lewis is a combative character. But Cleverly is the astute political player, who holds the biggest margin in an assembly constituency (Bexley and Bromley).
Cleverly was elected the assembly’s first black Tory member in 2008. He ran for the mayoralty of Lewisham in 2006 and is a former major in the Territorial Army. He also has a history in digital publishing that has given him a strong online presence on blogs, twitter and websites.
That broad background should help in pursuing many possible leads to help young people. He is in talks with the mayor’s arts adviser about possible initiatives, and is visiting grassroots youth sport projects. There are also plans to create a repository of knowledge on disseminating best practice.
Realising these plans will be the real litmus test for the administration’s success with young people. Cleverly hails the go-ahead given to Diamond Districts, a targeted scheme to address the multiple needs of young people in high-crime areas. But that was a central government initiative, and the Time for Action plans – from the repository to the proposal to create a network of boxing clubs – are far from a reality.
Still, Cleverly says he can bring people together to make that happen. “With Project Daedalus we’ve had conversations with the probation service, the London Criminal Justice Board,” he says. There is a big desire to make things work, he believes. “It could have been that people wanted to dig their heels in and say it was outside their area of responsibility. But they didn’t.”