Unity Housing Association Applauded By Leading Peer For ‘Punching Above Its Weight’

Former Housing Corporation chair Baroness Brenda Dean has warmly praised Unity Homes and Enterprise for “punching above its weight” as the Leeds-based housing association celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Speaking at Unity’s Annual General Meeting, Baroness Dean said that in her professional experience, larger housing associations were able to “look after themselves.” But she added: “The true enrichment in the sector came from the small and medium housing associations like Unity. You did things that others either didn’t want to do or didn’t have the wherewithal or culture to do it.”

Baroness Dean – who also served as General Secretary of the SOGAT trade union during the Wapping dispute – said it was now important for BME-led housing associations such as Unity to assert themselves. “Not in any negative way,” she said. “You just need to demonstrate what you’ve done, what you’ve achieved and that you could achieve even more if you had more concrete support.”

Praising Unity’s annual report, Baroness Dean said: “The report in itself is a manifestation – a very strong statement – of diversity, working together to build, and also having business and commercial appeal. It shows your values about integrity, about respect and about flexibility. Those together are very powerful. For me, they all come together and say that ‘this is an organisation that punches above its weight.’”

Councillor Jane Dowson, the Lord Mayor of Leeds and a Chapel Allerton ward member, reflected on Unity’s foundation in 1987 in Chapeltown where it still has its headquarters. She said: “Whoever came up with the name Unity did one of the best things because this organisation is truly unifying in what it does across the city. It does work in some the most deprived areas of the city, but they are also some of the richest areas. I don’t know if it’s because of a lack of money coming in, but you get people who give of themselves and want to make a difference.”

Arthur France, the founder of Leeds West Indian Carnival which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, also spoke fondly about the association. “We cannot be responsible for the past, but we will certainly be responsible for the future,” he said. “The housing in Chapeltown was not very good. Unity came in and addressed the imbalance. They provided beautiful accommodation for decent human beings, and not the type of houses that we used to have.”

Ali Akbor, chief executive of Unity Homes and Enterprise, outlined some of organisation’s greatest achievements. But he also struck a word of caution for policymakers as Unity prepares for the next three decades. “We must recognise and acknowledge the tremendous progress made in terms of equality and diversity in this country over the last 30-50 years,” he said. “This was driven by progressive policy initiatives such as those that led to the creation of organisations such as Unity.”

Bur Mr Akbor added: “In recent years it does feel as if we are going backwards. There is a policy vacuum when it comes to equality and diversity issues. There is still stark disparity and disadvantages for BME communities when it comes to opportunities for jobs, education, health and housing. And we all know that there is a housing crisis that affects all communities. I ask, does it really take the tragic event of the Grenfell Fire for us as a society to value social housing and help the people that need these homes?”

He said: “Unity’s evolution demonstrates how we can make a difference in creating multi-cultural communities and serve tenants from all ethnic backgrounds. We will continue to do so for the next 30 years and more.”

Shruti Bhargava, chair of Unity Homes and Enterprise, thanked everyone who had been “an integral part of Unity’s journey over the last 30 years, whether it’s as founders, shareholders, supporters, residents, staff, board members and, indeed, former chairs.” She said: “In these challenging times – with increases in inequality, division and race hate in our society – we all know that our social purpose is more important than ever. Our commitment to improving lives in areas with high BME populations, and turning them into vibrant multi-cultural neighbourhoods is what drives everything we do.”

Ms Bhargava added: “We know what a difference Unity makes in addressing inequality, bringing communities together and improving people’s lives. We know how important it is that organisations like ours continue to thrive, have an impact albeit on a small scale, and show larger and more mainstream organisations how to do it. BME organisations like ours have to lead the way, and provide the insight and expertise, if we are ever to address the wider challenges in our society.”

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