The Big Hire: Polly Neate

The incoming chief executive of Shelter sees her new job as a huge opportunity to make a difference on an 'issue of social justice'

Polly Neate
Polly Neate

Polly Neate, who will take over as chief executive of Shelter in August, started out as a journalist in the late 1980s. One of her first assignments was interviewing a homeless Bangladeshi family in Tower Hamlets, east London, who were living in "unbelievable" conditions, sharing a single room and communal bathroom in a bed and breakfast, all in the shadow of the City.

"I thought: 'My god, if people in the City knew what was going on right on their doorstep, they'd have to do something about it'," she says. "I was very, very young."

Neate went on to edit Community Care, a publication for social workers, but by 2005 she decided she'd had enough of journalism. She says that the need to see everything through a "news prism" and to work at speed to beat your rivals started to get her down. Instead, she wanted to effect social change more directly, so she took the role of director of public affairs and communications at Action for Children.

In 2013, she left the children's charity to become chief executive of Women's Aid, a role that gave her the opportunity to put her feminism centre stage. During her time at the charity, Neate has more than doubled its income, from £1.5m in 2013 to £3.5m in 2016, and turned a deficit of £760,880 into a surplus of £791,830. The charity's campaigning also contributed to the introduction of a new domestic violence offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine.

But, Neate says, there is "shocking disrespect" in the way women's charities are treated by other sector organisations. She says their expertise is "massively undervalued" because they are female-focused and often female-led. She views her move to Shelter as a huge opportunity to make a difference on a "really core fundamental issue of social justice".

Throughout her working life, she says, she has seen how homelessness and inadequate housing destroy lives. But she concedes she has a lot to learn: "I'm not a homelessness expert: Shelter is going to be chock full of experts that I need to talk to and listen to. I think there's a huge opportunity to put housing centre stage for the 2020 general election."

One of her key strengths, she says, is her willingness to work with people across the political spectrum. She also retains faith in the power of a story to bring about change. "When you strip back to values and the real stories of people you work with, you have the ability to move individuals and organisations to action," she says.

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