Swindon Borough Council needs to step up its efforts in bringing back empty properties into use.

That’s the verdict of the local authority’s own audit committee.

A report by the council’s senior internal auditor Nick Hobbs said: “Leaving properties empty for long periods of time can lead to structural damage, visual blights and attract anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping, and cause health and safety hazardsc.”

It said there were 537 private and social houses empty for longer than six months on the council tax system in the borough in October 2019. The council has a target of bringing 50 privately-owned empty homes a year back into use and has one officer dedicated to the role.

But auditors found only a third of that officer's time was going on to work on empty homes and that ratio might be made permanent, and while there were 37 closed cases, there was no way of telling whether the homes had been actually brought back to use. The report said significant improvements were required.

One committee member Roger Smith said: “I feel that some homeowners don’t respond to encouragement about doing something about an empty property. There’s one in my ward that’s been empty for 16 years and it’s clear the owner has no interest in doing anything about it. I hope there’s still the option of compulsory purchase orders. We need the stick when the carrot no longer works. And it might work in getting action from homeowners.”

The borough council’s head of housing Mike Ash agreed more should be done and wanted to keep the 50 homes a year as a target: “That’s 10 per cent of the empty homes. The number used to be much higher, but the low-hanging fruit is gone now.”

The leader of the Labour group on the council, Jim Grant was not impressed.

He said: “This audit report makes revealing reading about the cabinet’s lack of efforts to address this issue.

Last year it was claimed there is a dedicated officer on empty homes and they were seeking to tackle this issue.

“Now we know only 30 per cent of that officer’s time was actually spent on reducing empty homes and that the council has not taken any enforcement action against empty home owners in the last 20 years.

"At end of last year there were 537 empty properties. Meanwhile there are similar numbers of people in this town who are homeless and we are building on greenfield sites because we are told we need more houses.”