Empty council houses cost the taxpayer in Swindon nearly £1m in the last financial year, it has been claimed.
Labour councillor Bob Wright put that figure to Mike Ash, the officer in charge of housing for Swindon Borough Council at the authority’s adults’ health, care and housing scrutiny meeting.
Mr Ash had said empty houses – known as voids – had been as high as 230 in February 2018, although that figure had come down to 150 by November last year.
Coun Wright asked Mr Ash whether he knew how much that number of empty properties cost the council in lost rent and said: “I have that figure. It was close to £1m in lost rent.”
The average rent for a Swindon council property is just over £79 in this financial year and would have been slightly higher in 2016/17.
Mr Wright's figures say there were 272 vacant council houses in the last financial year, with 99 vacant for more than six months, and has calculated rents lost to be £975,000.
He contrasted that with 2016-17 when he says 191 houses were vacant, 17 for more than six months, and £244,000 went begging.
The council disputes this figure; a spokesman said: "As we did not have 230 properties standing empty for the full year, the £1m figure is not correct.
“The numbers of empty properties peaked in February last year at 230 when the council had no alternative but to break ties with the contractor. Since then, our in-house team has successfully taken on the challenge of reducing the numbers of voids, and we are well on course to reducing this number to just 100 by the end of March this year. With more than 10,000 council homes to maintain, this is a considerable achievement.
“The committee asked that a report come to its next meeting in March detailing progress on reducing voids, which will clarify any misconceptions that remain."
Mr Ash told the meeting: “I’m confident because we have already got the number of voids down from 230 to 150, so that’s the direction of travel.
“We are aiming to get that number down below 100 by the end of March.”
He explained that there will always be some empty properties - they might need repairs or refurbishment before new tenants take over a property, and said that for the council’s housing stock of 10,300 homes, a figure of 80-90 voids would be expected.
He added: “Of the 150 to 160 voids there are now, half are being worked on and about half are going through the stages of the letting process. There are about 20 which are ready for tenants to sign up to immediately.
“I will be much happier once we get the number of voids down into double figures - and we are on target to achieve that.”
The high number of empty homes caused the council to end its contract Bell Group who it paid to turn the houses around, and it has two new contractors,and does more work in-house.
Coun Wright said: “It’s useful to know that the figure is coming down from 150 to 100, but it’s important to know how long those 150 homes have been empty for.”
The committee’s chairman, Coun Fionuala Foley agreed and asked Mr Ash to bring a report back to the committee at its June meeting with details of how long properties have been empty.
Rental income can only be used for housing purposes and cannot be spent on providing other council services.
As well as its flats and houses it rent out, the council will be offering 10 new homes for “affordable” rent after it failed to find buyers on a shared equity basis.
Councillor Steve Allsopp asked the cabinet member for housing and public safety about 10 vacant properties in Sussex Place: “What is the target date to sell the properties, and how many of the 10 units have firm offers on them?
Coun Cathy Martyn answered: “Our shared ownership partner has withdrawn from the project. Subject to cabinet approval these properties will now be let at affordable rent.”
The cabinet meets on Wednesday February 6.