OWNERS of empty homes in Swindon are being urged to bring them back into use.

Swindon Borough Council is backing the national Empty Homes Week, which starts today and aims to highlight the problem in towns and cities up and down the country.

There are currently 294 privately-owned homes which have been empty for over a year in Swindon and fall into the 'long-term' bracket. This equates to just over 30 per cent of the total number of empty homes in the borough.

A house left empty for more than two years becomes much harder to return to occupancy than one vacant for weeks or months.

And the owners of such a house will find themselves paying double council tax and much more in renovation costs.

Specialist officer Sally Nelson, of the council's housing strategy and development team, said there are many reasons why a house might become empty – the owner property may have died, moved into hospital or a care home, become ill, inherited it unexpectedly, or sometimes the homes are undergoing renovation work and money runs out.

She said: “People can find they don’t know what to do with a house and it becomes a problem. Often they don’t know where to start.”

She said a house left empty for two years will become a significant problem, adding: “The costs of getting it back into habitable shape increase, the longer a house is left, the harder and more expensive it is to bring back.”

Such houses can become the target for vandals or just start falling prey to nature.

Ms Nelson said: “If some young people know there is a house empty, they will try to get into it. It can lead to anti-social behaviour or other issues.”

Empty houses can become sites for vermin and gardens will become overgrown, Ms Nelson said.

Ms Nelson said: “There was a house left empty and the back garden became totally overgrown. We couldn’t get into the back garden at all and there was a tree starting to grow though the windows into the house.”

She wants owners of empty houses, and neighbours, to contact the council earlier rather than later.

She said: “We can work with owners – but the longer they leave it, the harder it gets. I think some are worried about the council tax surcharge if they contact us – but we have a plan which can help. I have a very good relationship with all the estate agents in Swindon, with house clearance companies.

“If owners of empty houses peak to us we can work out what they want to do and how to achieve that, whether it’s to live in the house, rent it or sell it.”

Ms Nelson also wants neighbours to contact they council if they think a hose has been empty for any length of time:

She said:“It’s not always easy to tell.But again, it’s better to get in touch early. If we investigate it and it’s not empty then no harm done – but if it is, we can start earlier and try to prevent it becoming a real problem.”

Council officers can find owners of houses through access to records such as credit checks and while deterrents to leaving a house empty – such as double, triple or even quadruple council tax exists – they’d prefer to work with the owners.

Ms Nelson said: “We’re here to try and help get houses back into use, and it’s better if we can work with the owners.

“The earlier we know about it, the easier it is.”

How the council tackles the problem

Council officers can use a variety of approaches to deal with a long-term empty property. 

One house in SN5 – reported in 2016 – was found to have been empty since 2006. The owner, who had claimed to have moved abroad owed years in council tax arrears.
In late 2019 and then March 2020 the council was granted charging orders by the court for that debt. The owner had three months in which to pay, or contest the claim in court. 

The debt has not been paid and last November the council applied for an order to be able to sell the house and recover the money it is owed. 

For a house in Drove Road, which was attracting squatters and vermin, the council was able to work with the owner, once it tracked him down. 
He said it has been broken into and he was not comfortable enough to return to the house.

The property was still full of the owner’s belongings, which he did not want. The officers arranged for three property clearance companies to provide quotes to remove the owner's belongings, and clear the overgrown gardens. 

The house was sold sold to a property developer within days of going up for sale in late 2020. It should soon return to the market as a modern family home. 

More than 200 councils across the country are taking part in Empty Homes Week, taking the opportunity to let residents and property owners what they can do to help bring back houses into use. 

Why sit on a property when you can sell it?

Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for housing Cathy Martyn said: “I support national Empty Homes Week.

"Every single home which has been left empty for a significant period of time is one too many.

“These properties often cause problems for neighbours. And if they’ve been empty long term, they usually cost the owners money to bring them back to a standard where someone can live in them.

“Why sit on an empty home when you could sell it, rent it out, or live in it yourself? There are people who desperately want to buy or rent a home. Please don’t sit on a money pit, make your empty home work for you. We want to help owners of empty homes to bring them back into use.

“Sometimes there are genuine reasons why a house may be unoccupied, but homes which are empty long term can attract anti-social behaviour, devalue neighbouring properties and negatively impact the wellbeing of their neighbours and residents. 

“Bringing long-term empty homes back into use has often been a slow, painstaking process. Recently our empty homes officer has achieved really positive outcomes and we will continue to target as many vacant homes as we can.”