Home News Commonweal’s Conversation with Vice-Chair Amarjit Bains
Amarjit Bains

Lauren Aronin

Lauren is the Communications Officer at Commonweal Housing

Commonweal’s Conversation with Vice-Chair Amarjit Bains

In this series, Commonweal’s Conversations, we’re chatting to the people at the heart of change in our sector. From frontline service users to CEOs, we want to hear everything from what makes them tick, what hope they see for the future of the sector, and what their favourite ice cream flavour is.

We recently sat down with Commonweal’s newly appointed Vice-Chair of the Board, Amarjit Bains who is the Programme Director at Bridges Outcome – a not-for-profit social enterprise that designs services to improve life chances for vulnerable people.

Bains, an expert in homelessness project delivery, shared insights into her career and discussed the impacts of the housing crisis, including long-term policy solutions to providing more homes.

Commonweal Housing: Amarjit, it’s great to sit down with you and welcome to Commonweal’s Conversations. You’ve just started your role as Vice-Chair of Commonweal’s Board, which we’re delighted about. But outside of your work with Commonweal, you’re a Programme Director at Bridges Outcomes Partnerships. Tell us about your job, and how and why you got here?

Amarjit Bains: I changed jobs during the pandemic because, like many people during lockdown, I had time to sit down and really think about my career. I soon realised I was looking for a job that delivered more social value and made a difference in people’s lives – something I was unable to achieve in my current role at the time at Mears PLC Group, in a big part due to the methodology of contracting. 

By chance, I came across the advertisement for an outcomes contractor partnerships role at Bridges Outcomes – a not-for-profit social enterprise that works in partnership with government, the public, private and third sector to design and deliver services for vulnerable people. Immediately, I was drawn to the language used in the job advert when describing the work Bridges does around human intervention and changing people’s lives; I found these words resonated with me and my decision for a career change.

My role as Programme Lead for outcomes partnerships in London at Bridges involves co-creating human services interventions designed to help change people’s lives in cooperation with local authorities, the charitable sector, and service users. To deliver these services, we take away the charity’s financial risks by funding the project upfront so they can focus on delivering the critical and much needed services. My role includes being responsible for supporting charities in delivery and engaging with local authorities to collaboratively deliver the service in their area.

Bridges approaches intervention differently by creating and delivering interventions that seek to prevent the escalation, rather than services for individuals already facing crisis point. Another core focus for Bridges is shared learning, to achieve this we collect data from our programmes to carry out evaluations to learn what is working for service users to enable innovation and change across the sector.

CWH: We’re seeing increasing reports about homeless services being overwhelmed or closing, the private rented sector costs sky rocketing, and the impact that temporary accommodation is having on local authorities across the country. Housing, therefore, is in short supply for those on the margins, or looking to get their life back on track. Is this a breaking point? Is this different to other moments of crisis such as post-2008 crash? Or are there viable options that services, local authorities and charities can take? And is there hope?

AB: Anyone that knows me, will tell you I’m an optimist, so there is always hope as far as I’m concerned.

But there are many different ways we can define the breaking point facing the sector: Is it that we have primary schools filled with children living in temporary accommodation and therefore facing social isolation? Or are we at breaking point because it takes people in London six months to find a house to rent?

Unfortunately, all critical breaking points currently impact services, local authorities, and charities are not new to this, and this crisis is a continuation of an issue that can be traced back to the introduction of policy changes in the 1980’s. Like with the housing crisis in 2008, local authorities have no option but to adopt very similar tactics which is the dispersal of households outside of London.

The fundamental cause of all the issues facing the housing sector is that the demand for housing is outstripping supply significantly.

When looking at how to fix the situation, rather than saying the solution is building more homes and focusing on hitting targets for building these homes, we need to focus on the bigger picture and develop long-term solutions away from just building more homes.

For example, when it comes to demand for social housing, we need to assess whether the things like the Right to Buy discount scheme – where tenants can buy their social housing or council-owned house at a discount rate – are still working.

We’ll come back to policy solutions in just a moment. But first, you spent a number of years at housing and social care provider Mears Group PLC, where you were responsible for a contract to deliver homes and support to asylum seekers and in your current role at Bridges, you in-part focus on refugee services. Has this been a deliberate focus area for you, and if so why?

At Mears, I ran a government contract delivering homes and support to asylum seekers. But, the nature of the government contract made the outcomes very contractually driven, and as I mentioned earlier, I felt frustrated by being unable to deliver the meaningful change I wanted.

My time at Mears gave me valuable insights into the challenges faced by this group, which I can now apply in my position at Bridges, where I have the opportunity to create a service specifically tailored to the needs of refugees.

The universe is a strange place, so I can’t help but wonder if I was drawn to my role at Bridges because I felt frustrated by my inability to effect the change I wanted to while working on a government contract at Mears; and in turn found the opportunity instead at Bridges to deliver refugee services in a different way, given the growing need for impactful interventions. 

Local authorities and the central government were working hard and doing a good job of bringing down rough sleeping numbers. However, the expedited decision-making process introduced by the Home Office to tackle the backlog of asylum claims has resulted significant increase in rough sleeping among refugees and asylum seekers.

So, in short, we need these services because providing them is not only moral and the right thing to do, but also it’s in line with Bridges ethos to create such services that prevent further mental trauma and escalation of the homelessness journey.    

The services Bridges deliver in a local area are funded by that local authority, and as someone who collaborates with local authority partners, I am aware of the pressures and challenges they face in housing and supporting vulnerable communities. 

Through the process of delivering such services, we found that delivering refugee services is not just a case of giving someone somewhere to live but also integrating individuals into the community and understanding the journey they have endured. Therefore, at Bridges, our focus is not just on the housing solution but around integration and ensuring service users feel a sense of belonging in the community.

The number of refugees sleeping rough on London’s streets rose 800 percent as a result of the notice to quit reduction from 28 days to 7. Although it has since been reversed, is there going to be lasting damage here and where does the change take place?

There is no denying that the impacts of the reduction in the notice to quit period will continue to be felt by refugees. But the challenges facing this vulnerable cohort are part of the reason Bridges works to create and deliver collaborative intervention services.

For example, Bridges is currently running a pilot service in partnership with the Home Office, Brent Council and the homeless charity Crisis with Bridges are commissioned to deliver the service. This pilot service aims to ensure that refugees are given as much notice as possible before having to move on, while simultaneously supporting local authorities to manage expectations and helping refugees understand their rights and the support available to them.

My hope is that this pilot goes on to be implemented nationwide and provides a feasible solution, evidencing how central and local government can work collaboratively with other sectors to deliver a meaningful service. I am therefore hopeful that there will be light at the end of the tunnel and that multi-agency collaboration can help deliver positive outcomes for refugees.

I read your piece in Inside Housing from last year about the need for local authorities and housing associations to buy up private sector housing, which is an interesting and arguably radical solution. How would they do this, and what is the rationale?

Firstly, it is worth noting that housing associations have evolved into property developers despite their original core purpose of purchasing poor-quality homes, bringing them up to standard and giving to families most in need. 

When the government decided to make housing associations developers, no one else picked up the baton of delivering housing associations’ core purpose of creating decent affordable homes for vulnerable people, and the pressure fell on local authorities to provide homes for everyone, without a well-funded development programme in place.

Therefore, what I am suggesting when I talk about housing associations buying up private rented homes, doing them up and renting them out to families at local housing allowance rates is nothing new.

Over the past two decades, housing associations have diversified their real estate portfolio where it suited them, such as creating market rent portfolios and student accommodation. So, as the housing crisis deepens, my challenge to housing associations is why not purchasing private housing to provide affordable homes for families, why not diversify into another area in collaboration with their local authority partners? I would also put forward the idea for housing associations to buy back ex-local authority housing, as this would be a positive step toward providing much-needed affordable homes across the country.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know that something more can be done. Ultimately, it is all down to the will and desire of housing associations to explore this option.

You spoke earlier about your preference to reform or abolish to Right to Buy, why is this?

I would like to do away with the Right to Buy policy full stop.

Set up in 1980, the policy offers council tenants in England the opportunity to buy their home they reside in at a discount rate to the market value.

My main reason for wanting to end the scheme is that we need more social housing to help individuals get on the property ladder and the right to buy scheme does not achieve this. The policy prevents individuals from getting on or climbing up the property ladder and only benefits those already at the top of the ladder by giving them a 20 percent discount on buying their home.

Additionally, it would be beneficial if the 20 percent that local authorities and housing associations lose on every house sold via the Right to Buy scheme could be ploughed into building more houses.

In my opinion, the policy is no longer achieving the purpose of why it was set up and needs to be re-evaluated to ensure it delivers what the sector really needs.

And are there any other radical housing solutions for us today?

Another solution, which isn’t my idea, but I think it is a fantastic idea, is to give Buy to Let landlords tax relief if they let their properties at the local housing allowance rates (LHA) – which is set by the government, and is supposed to reflect the cost of renting in each area of England.

Therefore, rather than offering landlords high incentives to introduce lower rents or the government increasing local housing allowance, the government could look to create a tax break for anyone who lets their property at an affordable rent, which is LHA. 

It’s (probably) a general election year, with Labour widely expected to win power. If you were stood in an elevator with Keir Starmer for fifteen floors, what’s your big pitch?

There is definitely a lot I would have to squeeze into just a few minutes in an elevator ride with Keir Starmer, but the main point I would make is: “Why are you only funding services at crisis point?”. 

I would say approximately 98 percent of services delivered and funded by the current government are focused on intervention when individuals have already reached a crisis point, such as when a person is rough sleeping or has experienced a mental breakdown. 

If Labour gets elected, I would urge Keir Starmer to work upstream and set aside a greater proportion of funding dedicated toward prevention services so vulnerable people can access help before they reach critical crisis points.

Not long ago, there was a viral debate on social media about how many eggs you could eat in a day. How many eggs do you think you could eat? 

Not many! About six: two for breakfast, two for lunch and two for dinner.

Wow, that isn’t many! I have six for breakfast sometimes! But I think yours sounds the healthier of the two diets. And finally, what is one thing that defines your home?

A copy of Vincent van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers painting. In my youth, I visited the National Gallery and was absolutely blown away by the original piece, and since then, it has been a constant in my life, hanging up in my home wherever I have lived, from a room rented above a shop to my current home.

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