Over the last 18 months, we’ve all seen the shocking inequalities exposed by the Covid pandemic – the disproportionate level of deaths faced by Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people, the impact of insecure employment, housing and health inequalities, all of which expose people from Black Asian and Minority Ethnic communities to greater risk.
But the truth is, this is not new knowledge. We’ve known about these inequalities for decades. Right across the North, we see concentrations of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people living in the most deprived neighbourhoods. Here in Sheffield, the poorest areas in the city have the highest concentrations of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people, and there’s a 20 year difference in life expectancy – 20 years! – between the best and worst parts of the city, and these areas have not improved in decades.
Yet when it comes to economic development – the language we use, the thinking, the conversations we have – are almost always about big business, international development, bringing others into our region – not how to empower the vast swathes of latent talent that we already have in our communities, or aboutz how to best utilise the assets that already exist in our region. Too often our most deprived areas and communities are neglected and ignored in economic development strategies. They get relegated to ‘regeneration’, where pots of money which fail to reach those communities are managed, consumed and controlled by funding structures which those communities are excluded from. Far too many of those regeneration programmes have failed to make a difference – we’ve seen that here in Sheffield. The fundamental problem is that Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people and Black Asian and Minority
Ethnic-led organisations are excluded from key power structures that make decisions about economic development. They’re excluded through systems which just perpetuate and reinforce those inequalities. There’s too many tokenistic gestures, while gatekeeping of power and decision-making structures continue, all of which disempower and hold back the economic development of those communities who are not represented.
Ultimately, we all lose out as a result, in so many ways. I want to say a bit about housing, and its role in levelling up. Good quality, safe and secure homes have a huge impact on health, wellbeing, and the ability to obtain employment. Very different to if you are homeless, living in overcrowded conditions – conditions which affect Black Asian and Minority Ethnic people the most. And the state of your neighbourhood matters to how you feel about the area you live, and the quality of your life. Its all connected and crucial for ‘levelling up’.
At Unity Homes and Enterprise, empowering our communities underpins what we do. We’re one of 45 BME housing associations – a number of whom are here in the North – which were set up over 30 years ago to address race inequalities. But we’re small – we can only do so much. We need to be supported in our efforts, but we also need others to step up and do more.
We all need to empower our communities, give them agency, and enable them to unleash their talents.
If we really are going to ‘level up’, we need to unlock the gates that keep people from our diverse communities out of power structures. We need to disrupt and re-design the systems which perpetuate inequalities. And we need to reflect on and question the attitudes which underpin their design.
I would urge every single person in this room to think about how you might do this, and your role in making levelling up a reality. If we don’t, we will all miss out on a huge pot of economic potential, which will make all the difference in whether or not we become a true powerhouse.
Shruti Bhargava is Chair of Unity Homes and Enterprise. This is an edited version of her speech at the Great Northern Conference.