On Wednesday 11 September 2013, Unity Housing Association held its Annual General Meeting at the Hamara Healthy Living Centre, in Beeston. The AGM was opened by the chair of Unity Karen Morley, who welcomed everyone and thanked them for supporting this event. This was followed by the CEO of Unity Ali Akbor, who talked about the work Unity is carrying out in South Leeds and the partnerships they are involved like the Beeston and Holbeck £90m PFI development, support to families affected by the bedroom tax, dept and benefit counselling.
The first of the night’s guest speakers was Neil Evans, Director of Environment & Housing at Leeds City Council (LCC). He talked about the need to build more affordable housing in Leeds, as a result of increasing demand which is reaching desperation point. The council aims to building 20k affordable houses over the next 20 years at a cost of £42m.
Mr Evans raised a number of priorities he is leading on, the need to control the housing management changes as the Housing Department is having to live off the rents collected, so must live within its means. There is a plan to bring ALMO’s back into council control, but they need to ensure local housing offices maintain their locality focus. The need to support families affected by the changes in housing benefit rules – dubbed the bedroom tax. This poses a potential challenge to the council as 7,000 homes are affected by this charge and the potential arrears if not collected could reach as much as £4m. In addition to this, the council is expecting central government cuts of between 15% and 20% over the next couple of years, which means the housing department needs to become more efficient in its operation.
The next speaker was Mark Burn-Williamson, the Police & Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire. He explained that his role was to hold the West Yorkshire Chief Superintendent accountable for the way how our streets are policed. The West Yorkshire Crime Plan along with surveys and community consultation, are used to review priorities and as a way of measuring how residents feel about Community Safety. He was also mindful of the impact of the government’s Welfare Reforms and how cuts to benefits can act as destabilising effects on tenants and their communities, so creating uncertainty.
The Police Commissioner shared Mr Evans’ concerns about central government cuts, as West Yorkshire Police faces losing nearly a quarter of its budget by 2015. He spoke about the Community Impact Statement, which highlighted neighbourhood crime, the need to help make communities feel safe and reinvigorated. The Issues that have been identified as affecting the Beeston and Holbeck areas are teenager’s anti-social behaviour, nosy neighbours, traffic, rubbish and drugs – these are all seen as high priority.
The Police Commissioner, spoke about the need for a Restorative Justice approach as a tool to create lasting change and to make a difference to communities. There is a need, he felt, to have a number of Community Pathway Schemes, to tackle local problems and that the Police had a key part to play in this regard. He spoke about Operation Optimal – this project reduced burglary rates by 30%; but then the Police saw an increase in shoplifting. He applauded the work that Unity carries out, in providing debt and benefit advice to tenants. There is a need for partners to come together to tackle local issues by providing projects like Food Banks. There is a need to revive the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme, the external funding the Police received for the Community Police Support Officer’s (CPSO’s) – provides visible policing on the ground.
He spoke about his concern of the Courts not putting prolific offenders behind bars for longer. He talked about the Proceeds of Crime money, which is money confiscated from convicted criminals in the form of money or assets of crime and amounted £6m last year. Most of it goes back to the treasury, but, he says: “most of it should be put back in to deprived communities … to set up projects to prevent anti-social behaviour and crime” as a way of better strengthening these communities.