Writing exclusively for Haber, Enfield Council’s cabinet member for housing tells us how he believes Turkish-speaking communities can succeed in Britain and how he established himself as a national voice for housing
By Ahmet Öykener
Enfield Cabinet Member for Housing & Housing Regeneration
I became an Enfield ward councillor in a by-election in 2004. I was encouraged to run by the local Labour Party. I was working as a Housing Advice Officer in Islington Council at the time: this is probably why housing is in my blood today.
In my professional career I rose up the ranks at Islington Council, first moving into reception centres where we allocated temporary accommodation to homeless households.
By the time I left Islington, I was the acting head of emergency accommodation. I stayed with them for 16 years until 2010, when Labour won control of Enfield Council and I became a cabinet member.
One of the reasons I decided to walk into local politics in 2004 was that I was politically-minded. I was involved with the Turkish Cypriot Democratic Association and I was the secretary of the CTP Dayanışma Derneği, a solidarity group connected to north Cyprus’s centre-left Republican Turkish Party.
The Democratic Association group was affiliated with the local Labour Party and I saw an emptiness in mainstream British politics for the role of a Turkish speaking player.
Integration, not assimilation
I strongly believed – and still believe today – that migrants need to learn about living in this country and about how to harness its daily politics.
Many Turkish-speaking migrant groups who had lived in Britain for decades would hold regular weekly meetings to discuss the latest political situation thousands of miles away in Turkey or Cyprus. They were always thinking about reinvesting in the homeland and about going home.
But they never met to discuss political issues here in London (UK). That meant we were neglecting the community here: our education, our housing, our future. We had turned our back on what was happening on our doorstep.
I thought the community needed organising in this direction. They needed integration – not assimilation – into the British way of life, through politics.
Community more interested
That was 13 years ago. Are we integrated now? I’m not taking all the credit for this because there have been many Turkish-speaking councillors since I was elected in 2004, but I think we’re heading in the right direction. There is greater interest in British politics now and more people are running for office.
But there is more work still to do, but I hope mine has been a good example. If you want to achieve things in politics, you need to be able to understand and change policy.
Housing is a problem everywhere, but in Enfield we did something different here to try and tackle our part of the housing crisis! and we got noticed. I now get invited to local and national conferences on housing policy to tell audiences how councils can deliver housing.
That’s what I call success for our communities: when an ethnic minority person can go and speak to decision-makers about how a council should help the economy and the country.
But this is important: if I ran to become a councillor in 2004 with the sole intention of serving the Turkish speaking community only, I would have failed. Ethnic minorities can be taken seriously if they do the right thing. If you concentrate on an area and become a specialist, you will be able to contribute to society.
Enfield’s housing success is the combined effort of a Labour administration and council officers. The Meridian Water project in Edmonton, a multi-billion-pound regeneration programme to build thousands of new homes, was declared a “win-win” by London Mayor Sadiq Khan when he visited last month.
We have set up a new company, Housing Gateway, which buys up properties in and around Enfield so that we can use them for people who need temporary accommodation. We purchased our 400th property this month.
And by using public funds cleverly, we have so far saved £1.5 million that we would otherwise have paid to private landlords.
We are delivering new housing all the time: there will be 16,000 new homes in the next 15 years, with over 600 in the next year or two. And the homes we’re building are good quality, meaning you can’t tell the different between a council home and a private house.
We’re creating cohesive, stronger communities and we are proud to be doing so.
I am married to Havva and we have two sons Ekin and Emek, they respect what I do and have been very supportive. If I did not have their support, it would be impossible to be in political life!