Sarah Willis



Sarah Willis: Homes must be at the heart of tackling violence that affects young people

At its launch in 2017, few could have anticipated the circumstances in which the Youth Violence Commission would publish its final report. Whilst the global pandemic presents a new set of challenges to society that had not previously been considered, in some senses it has also brought deep-rooted and well established social and economic threats to young people into sharp relief.

Now, more than ever, we can see the stark reality of how inequalities impact the most vulnerable young people in society and how vital it is to launch a relentless drive to open up opportunities and engender hope for young people. Failure to achieve this, coupled with the impact of the pandemic, could lead to a greater level of violence that affects young people.

As Head of Strategic Partnerships at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing – which provides homes and services across 57,000 homes in London, the South East and East Midlands – and as co-chair of the Housing Association Youth Network, I was pleased to be part of the Youth Violence Commission through the YVC London Advisory Board.

The report explores the long-term causes that have contributed to rising levels of violence we have seen year on year. Young people attending the funerals of other young people is becoming a new social norm and leaving communities with devastating levels of trauma. The issues that have led to increased levels of violence are complex, but the root causes lie in the inequalities faced by vulnerable young people day in day out; early childhood trauma, high levels of deprivation, risk of long term unemployment, poor mental well-being, exclusion from education and, significantly, a lack of decent housing.

It has been shown that those living in good quality homes have stronger physical and mental health, and are more likely to have stable lives, do better at school and have improved prospects. Whilst the built environment is important, it not just about physical regeneration and developments. At MTVH, as well as providing homes, we understand that wider support is needed if we are to enable young people to fulfil their potential and if society is to share in their future success.

We can see that young residents have been exposed, directly and indirectly, to increased levels of violence across the UK. We fully support taking a public health approach, as seeing violence through a health lens means that it is solvable. If we can interrupt the transmission through working with trusted local stakeholders, we can create systemic change. At MTVH, we are working actively in specific neighbourhoods to build solutions that have local partners and local people at the heart.

We know there is a major housing crisis that will only be solved by cross-sector collaboration and a long-term house building strategy. It is also true that no single organisation can tackle this epidemic of violence alone and, if we are serious about making a change, then we must work together across all of civil society. There is a call for collaboration in the report and we also need to push beyond this to work towards a collective impact approach.

It is vital to consider how the housing sector can be included in systemic changes, as incidents of violence are often centred in and around very specific neighbourhoods. It is time that the housing sector is fully represented and included in the work of local Violence Reduction Units (VRUs). The cross referencing of data, evidence and intelligence could significantly inform a public health approach to reducing violence.

As part of the Housing Association Youth Network (HAYN), we have been leading a programme of work to establish a ‘collective impact’ public health approach. To support this, HAYN is now developing a network of funders, local authorities, voluntary sector providers and housing providers to jointly deliver the programme. This will ensure we use our collective assets to work systemically and reduce violence by working with and for local communities.

In the first instance the programme will span seven London Boroughs and will be based on the following public health principles:

  • Working based on data and evidence of where there are high incidents of violence
  • Adopting disease control strategies mean that it is solvable – interrupting the transmission, preventing future spread and creating new positive social norms
  • Working with and for communities – developing trusted relationships with local people who can be involved in the solutions
  • Not being constrained by organisational or professional boundaries
  • Focusing on generating long-term as well as short-term solutions
  • Partnership and collaboration across a range of stakeholders

As social landlords, we work with and for residents in local neighbourhoods’ day in and day out. We welcome partners from all sectors to join with us and include us in collaborations that will ensure we can innovate to have a bigger impact and stop this epidemic.


Sarah Willis is the Head of Strategic Partnerships and National Delivery at MTVH.  Sarah is passionate about creating the conditions for residents to thrive in local communities. She oversees the development of innovative partnerships with national, regional and local stakeholders to address inequalities and enable resident and community empowerment.  

Sarah has had a varied career and she is highly experienced in business transformation, learning and development, organisational change and leadership development, gained whilst working across the spectrum of the private, public and voluntary sectors. Sarah successfully managed Positive Futures, Britain’s largest national youth crime prevention programme; and was part of a consultancy that led on Government programmes including Every Child Matters, Extended Service Schools and Targeted Youth Support at a national level across 32 local authorities.