CRITICS of Swindon Borough Council say a huge jump in the number of empty council houses - known as voids - and the potential rent lost is down to poor decisions by management.

The Advertiser reported last week that Councillor Bob Wright claimed in a meeting with housing boss Mike Ash that voids had costs the council "nearly £1m" in lost rents in 20171-18.

Coun Wright's figures said £974,000 was lost in rent, buy a spokesman for the council said the £1m figure was "not correct"- but figures supplied by the council to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government show the figure was indeed £974,712.

It also shows the amount of "void losses" nearly quadrupled from the previous year when it was just £243,835.

Coun Wright said: "This increase is down to giving the contract to a company - Bell Group - with no office and no staff in Swindon.

That contract has now been terminated, and much of the work in turning around homes to be re-let is done in-house by the council.

Martin Wicks, secretary of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group, said: “The loss of nearly a million pounds in rent as a result of empty properties being empty for longer, was a disaster resulting from a major management failure. The average re-let time has usually been around 25 days. Last year it was 64. Hardly surprising that so much rent was lost.

"Instead of trying to spin something positive out of this disaster the council should simply admit that this is a case of management failure, which has financial and other consequences. As well as the unprecedented loss of rent it has meant a deterioration in the service for tenants owing to the repairs backlog."

Mr Wicks added: "One of the major problems in relation to council housing works has been the inability of the council to control contractors, especially given the sub-contracting set up in the building industry. There is surely a lesson in the fact that the council has had to put together a team of its own workers to try and rescue the situation. We need more work brought back in-house. It is much easier to control your own workforce and deal with any problems which arise. Staff have to spend less time on contracts disputes and managing the contractors/sub-contractors.

"When tenants die or leave a council property it is sometimes necessary to replace a bathroom or kitchen, or some other works. This is inevitable. However, every week without a tenant is a week's lost rent. Having a good system in place for work on empty properties is therefore critical. The decision to give all the work to one company without a base in the town was a huge mistake. The council should admit it and make sure it never happens again.”

A Swindon Borough Council spokesman said: “The voids figure reported to the Government covers the council’s entire housing estate and includes properties that have been left empty for a variety of reasons and have nothing to do with the Bells contract."

One example is George Gay Gardens, a sheltered housing scheme earmarked for demolition, but whose empty units still had to be reported.

The spokesman added:

There was no indication there was likely to be an issue with the voids contract as all the normal and thorough pre-contract tests were passed by the contractor. When a national contractor wins a local tender like this one, they tend to recruit a local workforce directly or through sub-contractors.

“That did not happen in this case and ultimately the Council had to step in. Our housing repairs team have worked extremely hard to reduce the total number of empty properties at any given time to 100 by April 1.”