OWNERS of unoccupied and unfurnished homes will no longer be exempt from paying council tax for the first six months as Swindon Council seeks to deal with Government welfare cuts and reduce the number of empty homes.

The amount of money the Government gives the council to help those in need cover the charge will fall from £13m to £11m when council tax benefit is replaced with council tax support in April.

To help deal with the £2m gap, the full council hopes to bring in about £640,000 in extra council tax through changes to various discounts and exemptions, including the removal of the six-month exemption on short-term unoccupied and unfurnished homes.

Instead, a charge of 50 per cent will be levied for three months, followed by a 100 per cent charge thereafter. A charge of 150 per cent will be levied on unfurnished properties that have been empty for two years.

The removal of the six-month exemption on short-term empty homes is expected to hit about 1,000 properties, bringing in an extra £525,000.

Coun Mark Edwards, cabinet member for finance, said similar changes were being made by other councils and although they might be unpopular with some people, their core aim was to make more much-needed housing available.

He said: “If you have got people with empty houses sitting there and doing nothing, and you’ve got people crying out for houses, we have got to find a way to close that gap. I certainly think it will be the case that people will think twice about leaving a property unfurnished if it’s going to cost money.”

He said when tenants leave rented properties, the homes are often empty for a time. For a period of time that would have been a problem for the person who owns the property but now, on top of that, they will face a charge.

Landlord Ken Woolley, who has operated in Swindon for more than 30 years, said it can take several months in the current market to secure a tenant who is not on benefits, so the removal of the six-month exemption could lead landlords to sell-up rather than rent out, resulting in a shortage of rentable homes.

He said: “It will put people off from keeping the houses and trying to rent them out to people who aren’t on benefits. Some people state in advertising ‘No DSS’ and they have to wait a long time. It will affect them. If you have got a property to rent and it goes empty, you are talking at least three months empty – that’s people who don’t take benefits people.”

Jon Harding, the co-owner of Charles Harding valuers and estate agents, in Old Town, said the council faced a huge administrative task to bill every property that becomes unoccupied and unfurnished for a few days.

He said: “I don’t think it will impact on the market as such. Obviously it makes it very difficult for the council to account for all of that. I think they’re making a rod for their own back.”