We are two of the 16 commissioners who produced that report, along with Doncaster North MP Ed Miliband. Brought together by Shelter following the Grenfell Tower fire, we examined the housing crisis in England as it exists today.
As a group of commissioners, we were as diverse as it gets in terms of politics, ideology, experience and background. We all started from very different points of view but after a year of listening to the views of 31,000 members of the public, a range of housing experts and key organisations, receiving economic analysis and hearing in depth interviews with social and private renters, we reached brave and bold conclusions – and recommendations – about which we are all united.
As two Yorkshire residents, we started from very different positions. One of us, the daughter of an immigrant whose community traditionally had little access to social housing and laid roots to accommodation through community support, had no direct experience of public housing. As a former Conservative Party chairwoman and Cabinet minister, you would be unsurprised to find that a natural inclination is to a small state, with markets finding solutions.
The other of us grew up on a council estate in Liverpool, and has spent the majority of a career working to achieve mixed communities and delivering public services. No surprises to find an instinctive belief in the need to create more decent and stable homes as an economic and social necessity – though other than experience and instinct, the facts weren’t fully there to back up this belief.
It was with some trepidation that we began our journey as commissioners, and there were many robust debates. The evidence, though, was overwhelming.
Social mobility has stalled in our country. Young people’s chances of security and advancement are seriously weakened by the disintegrating rungs of the housing ladder.
Half of young people cannot afford to buy. One in four families now lives in a privately-rented property, often on short-term tenancies. The single biggest cause of homelessness is the ending of private sector short-term tenancies. A generation is looking at a future raising children in unstable private rent, being uprooted every few years with no hope of building a strong community network.
While we come from very different backgrounds, we have much in common. One thing unites us both. Ours are stories of social mobility. Our year as Shelter Social Housing Commissioners has brought us to the same conclusion. If we do not decisively act now, the numbers of people that simply cannot afford to either rent or buy, will continue to shockingly spiral out of control. That is not what we want for our country.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, we have 145,000 households on the waiting list for social housing with fewer than 500 social homes built last year. Nationally, 1.2 million households are on the social housing waiting list.
For 35 years after the Second World War, Conservative and Labour governments built on average 126,000 social homes every year. Since the 1980s, an average of 27,000 new social homes were built nationally. This fell to 6,000 last year.
Private renting has more than doubled, including for over 55-year-olds, which has huge implications for our future housing benefit bills. Home ownership has dropped and now sits below the EU average. More than half a million working households spend more than half their income on rent, making private renting increasingly prohibitive. Our housing market has become the most vicious of cycles.
After 40 years of political mis-steps, we must do something different. We need to treat social housing as a national asset, just like other infrastructure. Building 3.1 million houses over 20 years makes economic sense. Evidence presented to us showed the economic benefits of social house building would ultimately outweigh the initial costs, with housing benefit savings and increased tax revenue off-setting construction costs as well as obvious employment and productivity benefits. After 39 years, the investment will have fully paid for itself.
Our country cannot afford not to act. If we are ever to have a chance of being a cohesive society that works for everyone, our vision for social housing offering the chance of a stable home to millions of people, providing much needed security and a step up for young families trying to get on in life, must be implemented.
As 16 diverse commissioners from across the entire political spectrum, who started in very different places, we have shown what can be done when people work together, follow the evidence, listen, debate and reach mature conclusions.
We must use this political and moral opportunity to solve the housing crisis. The time to act is now.
Jo Miller is chief executive of Doncaster Council and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi is a former Conservative Party chair and Cabinet Minister.