Somerset councils could soon charge double the level of council tax on empty properties in a bid to bring thousands of them back into use.

Statistics provided by Somerset’s five district and borough councils indicate that there are more than 4,500 empty homes across the county – of which more than 1,000 have been empty for two years or more.

Local authorities can currently charge a 50 per cent premium on the council tax of any “long-term empty” (LTE)  home – meaning one which has been empty for six months or more.

A bill is currently going through the House of Commons which would see the so-called “empty homes premium” increased to 100 per cent for homes empty for two years or more.

David Warburton MP, who represents Somerton and Frome, spoke in favour of the bill during its second reading on April 28.

He said: “Surely one of the huge benefits of the empty homes premium is that it will mean that councils have more money, thereby reducing the burden on hard-pressed council taxpayers?”

The total number of LTE homes in England has fallen from 300,000 in 2010 to just over 200,000 in 2018, according to the government.

Councils were given powers in 2013 to charge a 50 per cent premium on council tax bills for LTE homes, to encourage their owners to bring them back into use.

Based on statistics provided by Somerset’s five district and borough councils, an estimated total of 4,798 homes in the county are currently empty.

Of these, 1,088 have been empty for two years or more, and would therefore be eligible for the new higher premium if it becomes law.

Different districts measure the number of empty homes in different ways, with the most recent statistics available ranging from December 2017 to May 2018.

It should also be noted that the number of empty homes fluctuates on a seasonal basis; annual reports are made to central government each October, but the amount could be higher or lower depending on the time of year.

Any council which manages to reduce the number of LTE homes in its area is rewarded by central government through part of the new homes bonus, which can be used to fund infrastructure improvements.

In Sedgemoor – whose most recent figures come from December 2017 – there are 1,338 empty homes.

Of these, 479 – just over a third – have been empty for two years or more.

The council supplies an empty homes grant for long-term empty properties at up to £5,000 per bed space, delivered through a Somerset Care & Repair (SC&R) scheme.

A spokesman said: “If necessary SC&R can also access a local authority-backed low cost loan scheme, run by another not-for-profit organisation, which can be repaid through the rent that the property generates when it is let, effectively costing the owner nothing.

“SC&R, a charitable, not-for-profit home improvement agency, lease the property.  The term of the lease will be dependent upon the amount of work required to bring it back into use, but a minimum of seven years would be expected.

“If necessary SC&R can repair the empty property and put it into a habitable, rent-able condition and ensure that it remains that way.  They manage the properties on completion of the renovation; properties are returned to the owner on completion of the lease term.”

In South Somerset, there are 1,531 empty homes as of April 30, with 203 – just over one in ten – being empty for more than two years.

The council also uses Somerset Care & Repair, along with other social landlords, to refurbish and lease empty properties.

A spokesman said: “We are keen to avoid the need for enforcement action and will try and work with owners in order to obtain a satisfactory outcome.

“We can offer advice and guidance on a how best to repair and refurbish an empty property, the availability of grants and loans and advice on planning and building regulations.

“We also work with Wessex Home Loans to provide low cost home loans for landlords  to bring empty property into use.”

In Taunton Deane as of Tuesday (May 1), there are 1,158 empty homes, with 110 being empty for two years or longer – less than ten per cent.

In West Somerset (whose figures were released on the same date), the total number of empty is 428, with 80 of these – just under one in five – being empty for two years or more.

Taunton Deane councillor Terry Beale, executive councillor for housing services: “These figures can only be regarded as a snapshot in time, and it is important to recognise the innovative way we are working to bring properties back under occupation.”

These two councils share a dedicated empty homes coordinator, who offers advice and support to owners and targets different parishes each week to get an accurate picture of the number of homes which are or soon will be empty.

A spokesman added: “We are working in partnership with SC&R to bring empty properties back into use. Under the scheme, they will repair and manage an empty property under an agreed lease period and the owner can earn a guaranteed income. Nominations for the tenancies of these properties come from the housing register.

“Grants of up to £15,000 (subject to availability) and a local authority subsidised rate loan are available to bring the empty property back into a habitable, rental condition.

“For more extensive work to improve a property or to bring an empty property (empty for 6 months or more) back into good condition to rent or sell, subsidised rate loans are available.

“We are committed to tackling empty properties, which are a blight on our communities, often an eyesore and adversely affect the neighbourhood.

“The work undertaken in this area demonstrates our commitment to providing sustainable and thriving communities across our districts.”

The bill which would introduce higher premiums on empty properties is currently at committee stage, with a third reading in the House of Commons due later in the year.