Let housing associations help build unity and social cohesion – Ali Akbor

AFTER four years of national political turmoil over Brexit, it is crucially important that communities now come together. The Prime Minister and his senior colleagues have collectively made almost limitless pledges to voters of better lives ahead.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn officially opened a new £4.5 million affordable housing scheme at Brown Lane East, Holbeck, which includes 18 two-bedroom flats and 24 three and four bedroom houses for affordable rent and shared ownership. Pictured Ali Akbor, Chief Executive of Unity Homes and Enterprise, and Hillary Benn, MP, chatting with home owner Margaret Mitchell.

People want to believe that the brighter future they have been promised for themselves and their families will be delivered. This is not about party politics. It is about our country and its citizens being the best they can be. It is clearly for the Government in general and Mr Johnson in particular to lead on this. But others stand ready to assist in this task, not least the housing association sector.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In common with other BME-led housing associations across the country, Unity was formed in the 1980s as a community response to the poor-quality homes so many people from ethnic backgrounds were forced to live in.

Ali Akbor OBE is chief executive of Unity Homes & Enterprise.

We originally concentrated our work in the Chapeltown and Harehills areas of Leeds. But we have since expanded our activities right across the city and into other parts of West Yorkshire, serving people from all ethnic backgrounds.

Visiting some of these communities, I have experienced a mixture of excitement and trepidation. They have been let down by previous governments and there is a fear that another false dawn could be on the horizon.

Whilst housing associations have miniscule resources in comparison to Whitehall, we are able to make a difference and should be seen by Ministers and officials as key partners in their crusade to bring people together. And, whilst I may be biased, I would argue that BME-led associations should head the queue.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn with Dr Ali Akbor.

We are uniquely placed to facilitate integration and promote cohesion. Guided by social purpose, raising dissent on behalf of communities who feel ignored or who often bear the brunt of ill-informed decisions is an important part of what we do.

We are not in the business of needless flag waving or virtue signaling. Instead, we are driven by a desire to provide better answers to the questions that decision-makers claim they wish to answer.

In common with mainstream housing associations, BME associations do much more in neighbourhoods than provide high quality affordable homes. We understand that vital elements for community revitalisation include a need to stimulate social and economic regeneration, improve life opportunities and address inequalities.

To illustrate, last year Unity helped 119 people into jobs, 179 to improve their skills and employability through training and 24 people to find voluntary work. Since 2011, our dedicated employment services team has supported more than 1,500 individuals into work and training – transforming real lives in precisely the way the Government says it aspires to.

Our not-for-profit subsidiary, Unity Enterprise, provides 142 affordable business units for more than 80 diverse businesses across three centres in Leeds. They generate a financial surplus which is used to further improve facilities and offer additional direct support for tenants, including business breakfasts and professional advice.

Working with others, Unity seeks to lead on community projects whenever and wherever we can. For example, we established a credit union and, in partnership with HSBC, were able to deliver a free-to-use ATM cash machine in Chapeltown after all of the major banks closed down their local branches.

We collaborated with Leeds City Council to build a gym in the park and established Feel Good Factor, now an independent registered charity, to provide and develop a range of health and wellbeing activities. And we were involved in setting up Union 105 to support local artists. It now boasts seven affordable studio facilities – building connections between artists and the community.

In working at the heart of the communities, we believe we have their collective ear, but the Government must also get its policy priorities right. The housing association sector is ready and willing to act as a two-way bridge between the streets of Yorkshire and the marble floors of Whitehall.

The role of BME-led associations such as Unity could be pivotal. We want to ensure that the new Government’s promises are kept and the much-vaunted political rhetoric is turned into everyday reality. The communities we serve literally cannot afford to be let down yet again.

Ali Akbor OBE is chief executive of 
Unity Homes & Enterprise.