THEY are a blight on cities, towns and villages at a time when many families are struggling to get a foot on the property ladder.

But across Scotland, hundreds of empty homes are now being brought back into use in an effort to breathe fresh life into fragile and rural communities.

Last year saw a record 1,128 properties revamped under the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP), which aims to rescue private sector houses from long-standing neglect.

It brings the total number of homes brought back into use since the scheme was set up in 2010 to 4,340 – roughly equivalent to a town the size of Peebles.

Figures show the number of long-term empty homes has risen 5.5 per cent in a year, with 39,300 vacant for six months or more in 2018 – an increase of 2,000 on 2017.

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Housing minister Kevin Stewart said empty properties are “a missed opportunity to provide warm, safe, sustainable places to live”.

He said: “That’s why I strongly welcome the rise in the number of homes being brought back into use, which is down to the hard work and expertise of empty homes officers.

“I want to see this expertise working across the whole of Scotland, so we have doubled our funding for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership to more than £400,000 a year to help local authorities realise the benefits of this successful approach.”

Remote and rural areas have the highest percentage of vacant homes, with around 3.4% of properties in the Western Isles long-term empty, compared to 1.5% across Scotland.

Reducing their number is seen as key to strengthening fragile communities and bringing affordable housing back on to the market.

A new service launched in the Western Isles in October 2018 – and run by the council with support from the SEHP – has already brought 40 properties back into use, with more than 70 currently being renovated.

Officials put owners in touch with local suppliers and negotiate discounts to help revamp properties, as well as facilitating access to VAT reductions to kickstart work on long-term empty homes.

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Murdo MacLeod, the Western Isles’s first empty homes officer, said: “For a lot of people it’s the cost of renovating that has been holding them back so getting the discounts from local suppliers and additional VAT discounts has made a huge difference.

“For people doing a lot of work to a property it can save them thousands of pounds and can make a project viable when it wasn’t before.

“Some of them are eligible for government funding for energy efficiency measures like insulation and new heating systems too.

"With this help available people are waking up and realising that it’s cost-effective to do the work now.”

Much of the property Mr MacLeod deals with has been inherited by people who live in mainland Scotland or even further afield.

To get in touch with them, the local authority produced a leaflet explaining the new service and distributed it with council tax bills.

Mr MacLeod added: “People on the islands called up their friends and family who had moved away and let them know - it’s generated a lot of interest in the service.”

The SEHP, which is funded by the Government and run by Shelter Scotland, carries out a range of work to tackle the 39,300 homes sitting empty across the country.

It has also supported legislation to allow councils to remove empty homes discounts from council tax and charge more for properties that have been vacant for a long time.

Meanwhile, officials are pushing for new laws to allow them to force the sale of empty homes under certain circumstances.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have called for the introduction of a help-to-renovate loan in a bid to speed up the process of getting vacant properties back into a good condition.

The party’s housing spokeswoman Caron Lindsay said: “These promising results show what can be achieved when local authorities dedicate staff time to bringing empty properties back into use. It’s a lot cheaper to revamp an existing house than it is to build an entirely new one.”

Shaheena Din, national manager of the SEHP, said: “In 2010 there were only seven councils where staff had time dedicated to empty homes work.

“Today we have more staff working on empty homes than ever before and it’s delivering results – not just on reducing the number of empty homes but improving communities where empty properties can cause nuisance and even blight.

“On behalf of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership I want to thank the empty homes officers for a record-breaking year but we know we still have work to do.

“Empty properties are a wasted asset at a time of a housing shortage and our goal is to see staff with time to dedicate to this issue working in every council in Scotland over the next three years.”