The chief executive of Leeds-based housing association Unity Homes and Enterprise has told its Annual General Meeting that the organisation will “stay true to its mission of providing good quality housing, improving life opportunities and addressing inequalities,” as it prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
Speaking to a large audience in the Executive Suite at Headingley Cricket Ground, Ali Akbor said that Unity was resilient and had adapted skilfully to constant change over the last three decades. And it was achieving ever-stronger results, despite the many challenges housing associations now face.
“What we’re seeing from the Government, at long last, is a political recognition of the national housing shortage but very little in terms of policies and initiatives to address that adequately,” Mr Akbor said. “And the focus recently changed to ownership as opposed to rented housing.”
As part of the last Homes and Communities Agency programme which ended last year, Unity developed 80 new affordable properties. And in the current programme which runs until 2018, Unity has been successful in its bid to build a further 120 units – the largest house-building programme in its history – with half of these already under construction.
“The two schemes we have opened this year - at Brown Lane East in Holbeck and Stratford Court in Chapel Allerton - have included shared ownership as well as rented accommodation,” Mr Akbor said. “So we have a national focus and a local need, and I believe we are delivering on both levels.”
The Unity chief executive stressed that, alongside new affordable homes, the organisation continued to bring “added value” to the individuals and families it serves.
“We have a team dedicated to getting local communities into work and, last year, Unity helped over 70 people to gain employment and more than 100 others to access training schemes,” he explained. “And our income management team is tasked with reducing rent arrears, but in a way that helps our tenants given the financial issues people face.”
Mr Akbor also revealed that Unity’s subsidiary company, Unity Enterprise, which operates three business centres close to the heart of Leeds, had achieved a financial surplus in 2015-16 following a period of deficit. He added: “Last year we completed a £1.4 million investment in Unity Enterprise and now it’s paying dividends.”
But the Unity chief executive ended his remarks on a note of caution, following the recent EU referendum result.
“We have seen headlines about a divided nation and these have had a knock-on effect on the work of organisations like Unity,” he said. “We have witnessed an increase in anti-immigration views. Cohesion and diversity have been challenged in some areas with an increase in hate crime.
“All of that means that the work of Unity Homes and Enterprise is much more important now than ever before. Local community organisations like ours do make a difference, and we will continue to make that difference.”
The meeting was held immediately before an historic inter-faith cricket match - co-sponsored by Unity - between Mount CC, a predominately Muslim team from Batley, and St Peter’s CC, made up of trainee priests and seminarians from the Vatican.
Keynote speaker Lord Patel of Bradford – an adviser to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and a member of the England and Wales Cricket Board – praised Unity staff for their achievements.
“It is really inspiring in terms of the work you do and what you’ve done for almost 30 years,” he said. “The longevity with which you’ve managed to survive in these harsh times is really important. A big thank you for what Unity does and to the board members for supporting you to this place.”
Opening the meeting, Unity chair Shruti Bhargava said she was proud to lead a strong, capable and diverse board.
“We are unified behind our social purpose to improve people’s lives in areas with high BME populations and help transform them into vibrant, multi-cultural neighbourhoods,” she said. “I would like to congratulate the founders of Unity on their choice of name because it really demonstrates what we’re about.”
Ms Bhargava added: “It is really important for organisations like Unity to be beacons and show what we can do to bring communities together and achieve real cohesion.”