Next week, the House of Commons will vote on the future direction of the United Kingdom. MPs will be asked if they support Theresa May’s Brexit deal with Brussels which sets out the terms on which Britain will leave the European Union. But as things stand, the vote seems unlikely to go in the Prime Minister’s favour.
In my two decades as Chief Executive of Unity Homes and Enterprise, I have not known an atmosphere of such deep uncertainty in the communities we serve. Unity was formed in 1987 to address the housing needs of black and minority ethnic communities across Leeds. Our work has since expanded beyond the city to other parts of Yorkshire, and we manage properties for tenants from all communities and ethnic backgrounds. But we have never forgotten our roots, and are proud to describe ourselves as a BME-led organisation which works to safeguard the welfare of some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Unity tenants want to live side by side with people respectful of each other’s differences. To my deep frustration, the aggressive tone and negative rhetoric we have heard from both sides of the Brexit debate have become a combined threat to community cohesion. Politicians who advocate a ‘my way or no way’ doctrine and denigrate those who hold a different viewpoint to their own are playing an irresponsible game. And it does appear to be a game to some of them.
Should Mrs May’s deal not receive Parliament’s assent, two alternative outcomes pose particular perils. The first is a no-deal Brexit. Despite vacuous claims from prominent members of the Leave campaign, I see no clear benefits from a cliff-edge departure. No one can be sure what unforeseen consequences will result and that is a risk I do not want our tenants to endure.
I also do not wish to see another referendum. The scars of the June 2016 vote still run deep. It will not take much to reopen the wounds. I also suspect that the result of a re-run would be equally as close, whichever side triumphed, and would fail to deliver closure on the issue. Some would demand a third vote. This would be in no one’s interest, other than those who crave division.
Unity is not a political organisation and has no desire to become one. But I do believe that MPs from across the political divide have a responsibility to reach an agreed way forward on Brexit before the country is plunged into a state of chaos.
The wheels of government have ground to a halt. This is not a criticism, it’s a fact. The Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper and the Social Housing Green Paper – both vitally important to housing associations - are gathering dust in Whitehall, with the attention of Ministers almost exclusively focused on Brexit.
Businesses are also being adversely impacted. Unity Enterprise, our not for profit subsidiary, hosts more than 80 companies in three centres close to Leeds city centre. The ability of these businesses to expand and create new employment opportunities in communities which need more jobs is being restricted because of diminishing confidence amongst entrepreneurs. Existing posts may also be at risk. These enterprises need clarity to enable them to plan for the longer term and make investment decisions.
For the sake of the country, our politicians must agree a shared way forward. The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal is far from perfect but is the only fully worked-up solution currently on offer. MPs need to do their jobs - and then empower the housing association sector to get on with ours.