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High praise from Lord Mayor as BME-led housing association celebrates ‘best ever year’

Unity Homes & Enterprise Chief Executive Ali Akbor delivers his annual address

A Leeds-based housing association has been praised by the city’s Lord Mayor for its efforts to create “strong and vibrant communities” over more than three decades.

Speaking at the Unity Homes & Enterprise Annual General Meeting, Cllr Eileen Taylor told guests she had worked closely with the association as a local ward member.

“Unity has led the way by realising very early on that creating a sustainable neighbourhood is about more than just affordable housing,” the Lord Mayor said.

“I have witnessed the excellent work that Unity has contributed towards creating strong and vibrant communities. They provide for very deprived areas in Leeds and further afield. It is no surprise that, with over 30 years of knowledge and collective experience, it is regarded as one of the country’s most successful BME-led housing associations.”

Delivering his annual report, Unity Chief Executive Ali Akbor described the last 12 months as the association’s “best ever year.”

He said: “We have had our governance and financial viability ratings upgraded to the highest possible levels by the Regulator of Social Housing. We are halfway through the most ambitious development programme in our history to deliver 220 new homes by 2021. Unity Employment Services helped 119 people into jobs, 179 to improve their skills and employability through training and 24 people to find voluntary work. And Unity Enterprise, our not-for-profit subsidiary, generated a financial surplus which will be used to further improve facilities and services at our three business centres.”

Mr Akbor said the association had much to look forward to in the year ahead, but warned that it would be operating in a vacuum of “deep uncertainty on societal and public policy levels.”

He told the meeting: “The ongoing Brexit mess is affecting every local community in this country, and the neighbourhoods whose interests we serve are clearly no exception. It is now more than a year since the Social Housing Green Paper was published but, with a minority Government in place, there seems little chance that follow-up legislation will be enacted any time soon. It is not a great legacy for the Grenfell victims.

“We face the prospect of a General Election, a second EU referendum or both in the months ahead. And with weeks to go until the 31 October Brexit deadline, we still have no idea if the UK will leave the European Union – never mind what lies ahead on 1 November if we do.”

He pledged: “What I can say for certain is that, whatever happens, Unity will remain loyal to our partners, tenants and our communities. Our dedication and our professionalism will always shine through in every situation that confronts us. We are motivated by providing housing choice, improving people’s lives and addressing inequalities. And our mission is to use our energies, skills and services to grow sustainable communities. Nothing will ever distract us from that task.”

Unity Chair Shruti Bhargava said that, despite “really challenging times when it feels like our political leaders are fuelling division and conflict, we’re actively trying to do the opposite.”

She continued: “Perhaps our most important impact is our commitment to community cohesion, bringing communities and different people together, and fighting against inequalities, race hate and division. We’ve absolutely got to continue to deliver on all parts of our social purpose: our commitment to addressing inequalities, improving lives in areas with high BME populations, and turning them into vibrant sustainable multi-cultural neighbourhoods, and to make sure that this drives everything we do.

Ms Bhargava added: “It’s really important that we both fight against what’s happening, and also be an example to others – whether that’s other housing associations, public bodies, the government, or the rest of our society. I think collectively that we are role models, and a shining light to others – in the rest of the country, including the housing sector and politicians, showing them what can be done to address inequality, bring communities together, and improve people’s lives.”

Also addressing the event, Chapeltown Cohousing Chair Bill Phelps spoke about his organisation’s joint work with Unity to deliver 60 new affordable homes in north-east Leeds in a pioneering £9.3 million project.

“The partnership has worked really well for us,” he said.

“I hope this can be a model for other partnerships between community-led housing groups and the more enlightened housing associations that are prepared to take a bit of a risk in order to try to achieve something remarkable. That’s what’s happening and I’m really grateful for it.”

And Dr Shamim Miah, Senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, said he was deeply impressed by Unity’s commitment to seeing a project through.

He told attendees: “We are living in historically unprecedented and chaotic times. Unity addresses the issues and rise to the challenges of making a difference to people’s lives.”