On the eve of becoming PM, Boris Johnson urged to recognise value of working with housing associations

Armley Ridge Road (Demo)

Must we really have the same old arguments all over again, wonders Unity chief

With Boris Johnson set to formally take office as Prime Minister tomorrow, will housing associations need to fight their case in Whitehall all over again? Ali Akbor fears this may be so, but hopes the sector’s activities on the ground will persuade the new government of its vital role

Quarmby Road, Kirkless
Kirklees councillors join Unity representatives to inspect a development in Quarmby Road.

PRIME Minister Boris Johnson will now form a new Government, restarting the process of housing associations trying to make themselves heard in Whitehall.

This task has traditionally been difficult for BME-led associations, but not due to a lack of effort. Last year, with valuable NHF support, BME National held a successful celebratory reception in the House of Lords.

Housing secretary James Brokenshire spoke warmly about our work over more than three decades. He rightly acknowledged that diverse communities still face “particular challenges” and BME housing associations had “done much to meet their needs and provide culturally sensitive housing and support services.” This includes building a lot of affordable homes.

Ali Akbor
Ali Akbor, chief executive, Unity Homes & Enterprise

Unity Homes & Enterprise, which I have led since 1999, is currently engaged in the largest housebuilding programme in its history, including an allocation of 220 new properties as part of the current Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme.

More than half of these are already complete or in development. Overall, Unity now manages more than 1,300 properties for residents from all communities and ethnic backgrounds across Leeds and Kirklees, with plans for many more.

But whilst numbers are clearly very important, accepting challenges that others might choose to shy away from is at the core of our DNA. I call it “development with a purpose”.

We have just started construction on a pioneering £9.3 million housing scheme that will provide more than 60 new homes for people in north-east Leeds. Unity will build 30 one- and two-bed flats for clients over 55.

Meanwhile, a partner organisation known as ChaCo will construct 29 houses and flats, a ‘common house’, and provide space for four self-build units as part of a cohousing project – only the second in the city. The site had been occupied by a vacant social services building and will soon be vibrant again.

Just a few weeks ago, we welcomed Leeds MP Rachel Reeves to view our new £2 million affordable housing development in her constituency (main image). The Armley Ridge Road scheme of six houses and eight flats is located on the site of a derelict community pub.

Nine families recently moved into their new homes for affordable rent in Huddersfield which were constructed on a former garage site. The £1.2 million scheme – comprised of six semi-detached two-bed properties and three terraced houses – was the pilot project for Kirklees Council’s Small Affordable Housing Sites programme, which draws on the expertise and resources of registered providers to maximise the delivery of affordable homes in the district.

Chapeltown Road
Chapeltown Road (left to right): Then housing minister Alok Sharma; Unity chair Shruti Bhargava; Unity chief executive Ali Akbor; and Unity regeneration director Wayne Noteman in 2017

And we are particularly proud of our 146 Chapeltown Road project in Leeds, which was completed in 2018. The property is a stone-built Victorian terraced family home situated within a conservation area.

When we started, the poor state of the derelict building meant that only the property’s front façade could be retained. A thoughtfully-designed extension has created six spacious apartments. Working with the trustees of the property next door and part-financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it took seven years from inception to completion.

BME housing associations are proud to do what we do – and I believe we do it well. As new ministers and advisers take office in Whitehall, I trust they will be keen to work with us.


Ali Akbor is chief executive of Unity Homes & Enterprise and secretary/treasurer of BME National

Main Image: Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves (centre) celebrating progress on the Armley Ridge Road site with Unity chief executive Ali Akbor (centre right), project partners and students from Leeds Beckett University  


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