The number of long-term empty homes is over six times higher in some parts of the Scotland than when ministers moved to double the council tax on them to slash their numbers, the Herald can reveal.

The number of properties that have been unoccupied for 12 months or more across Scotland  has risen on average by over 70% from 16,527 in 2014 when the crackdown was sanctioned to 28,280 in 2023.

South Lanarkshire and Aberdeen has seen the biggest rise in the number of long-term empty properties in Scotland over the nine-year period soaring over six-fold between 2014 and 2023. In South Lanarkshire there were only 225 long term empty properties registered in 2014 but that has risen to 1,493 now while in Aberdeen City the numbers have shot up from 426 to 2615.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) said councils were  "committed" to reducing the number of empty homes across Scotland through the work of their empty homes officers.  It said political group leaders and COSLA have established a special group to consider what need to be done.

Since April 2014, Scotland's local authorities have been allowed to charge 200% council tax on properties that have been unoccupied for more than a year to cut the numbers lying empty.

The discretionary charge was intended to encourage owners to bring empty properties back into use and reduce the blight of unoccupied homes.

READ MORE: Nineteen Scots councils admit legal failures in dealing with homeless

It did not apply to second or holiday homes, where the owner can prove they are used for more than 25 days a year.

Housing campaigners believe the purchase of vacant properties could help to ease Scotland’s national housing emergency and say new action should be taken to cut the number of empty homes.

Scottish Government guidance encourages local authorities to use flexibility and discretion in applying additional charges given its intended purpose is to act as an incentive for owners to bring homes back into use.

In 2022-23, 29 of 32 councils make use of the ability to charge double council tax for long-term empty properties in some way.

Three councils do not make use of the power, offering a 10% discount or charging standard council tax on such homes.

But a loophole that was brought in later allowed the council tax uplift to be put off to 24 months instead of 12 months where the property is being actively marketed for sale.

And a 10% discount is applied to properties that are for sale and have been unoccupied for a year or more.

Some 76% of the properties that are empty for 12 months or more (21,752) managed to qualify for that 10% discount in 2023, according to official analysis seen by the Herald.

The council area of Edinburgh, which recently declared a housing emergency along with Glasgow and Argyll and Bute has seen the numbers of properties empty for 12 months rise by over three-and-a-half times over the nine years from 751 to 2,751.

But the equivalent numbers in Glasgow City have dropped from 2,040 to 1,395. In Argyll and Bute, the numbers have risen from 778 to 915.

Highland has 3,336 properties that have been empty for 12 months or more - the highest number in Scotland - and over five times more than the 660 that were registered in 2014. In the Western Isles the numbers have increased from 160 to 581.

But in North Ayrshire the number of long-term empty properties fell by over half over the nine years from 1,137 to 554.

The Scottish Government's reason for giving councils the power to increase the council tax for long-term empty properties was "to help local authorities to encourage owners to bring empty properties back into use, both to increase the supply of housing for those who need homes and to reduce the blight on communities caused by houses being left empty and allowed to fall into disrepair".

The Herald:

Directors of finance within local authorities were told in a 2013 circular by the Scottish Government: "The council tax increase could be used as part of a wider approach to tackle long-term empty homes including support and guidance to owners and provision of loans or grants if available."

Housing campaigners believe the purchase of vacant properties could help to ease Scotland’s national housing emergency.

The official analysis also revealed that some 46,217 properties were empty for six months or more in 2023 while in 2009 there were just 24,598 .  The level of long term vacant properties has gone up by 1616 in just 12 months.

Some 61% of those properties have been empty for over 12 months, it has emerged.

That is set against the number of open homelessness applications in Scotland soaring by 30% since the pandemic began - from 22,754 in March, 2020, to 29,652 in 2022/23. The homeless household numbers being forced into temporary accommodation - like hotels and bed and breakfasts - rather than settled homes has shot up from 11,807 to 15,039.

The tenants' rights organisation Living Rent said there was a "desperate need" in Scotland to crack down on empty homes saying it is "one less long-term home for someone to live in".

"For empty homes to have nearly doubled despite work to prevent this shows we need an overhaul of the current legislation. We need to increase tax on empty homes, and urgently crack down on second home ownership," the group said.

Homes can be empty on a temporary basis, for example, when an owner is in hospital or has moved but is finding it difficult to sell the home they left.

A common reason for homes to remain empty on a longer-term basis is that they need to be refurbished to make them habitable. Depending on an owner’s cash flow, such work might not be possible or take longer than thought.

According to some experts, it can be difficult to pinpoint who owns an empty property. In some cases, it can be challenging to contact an owner who may be unwilling to take any action to bring homes back into use.

But Living Rent spokeswoman Eilidh Keay said: "In the smaller communities, the impact of empty homes is devastating. Demand for second homes is inflating the price of housing and pushing up rents. In Tiree, 46% of homes are empty for most of the year.

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"Empty homes are destructive, they contribute to the housing crisis, they hurt our valuable local services and small businesses, and they force people to leave their communities."

Another housing campaigner said the rise was a "failure" of Scottish Government policy.

"To improve the issue of empty properties needs strong leadership from government and it needs to be made uneconomic," she said. " The worry is that we could well see a further rise in empty properties as landlords exit the sector in this cost of living crisis."

“It’s also fair to assume that with the continued high cost of living and borrowing, coupled with a cooling property market where prices are concerned, we could well see more properties become vacant as the nation’s landlords continue to exit the sector in order to balance their books.”

Through its Affordable Housing Supply Programme, the Scottish Government can provide funding to councils, housing associations and other organisations to help them purchase existing homes to bring them back into use as affordable housing, where that is line with local priorities and local housing strategies.

Councils have compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers to purchase homes without the owner’s agreement if there is a strong enough public interest for doing so.

Callum Chomczuk, director of Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland, the professional body for those working in the sector said: “We need to use every tool available to tackle the housing crisis and the acquisition of empty properties in the private sector has a role to play. It can help address immediate housing need in areas and communities where there is a severe shortage, and we welcome guidance published by the Scottish Government to support social landlords acquire homes. It can help.

“However, acquisition programmes alone cannot address the housing crisis. We need more homes and more social homes. The most recent statistics show that new house building starts across all tenures are down considerably over the last year and this is particularly acute among social landlords. Given the increasing cost of construction we need the Scottish Government to urgently review the viability of its 110,000 affordable homes by 2032 target and consider what funding and support is needed to increase sector capacity immediately to deliver the affordable homes Scotland needs.”

In May, it emerged that  a Scottish Government-appointed expert group has said legal action should be taken to claw back thousands of long-term empty properties from their owners to help solve the nation's homelessness 'emergency'.

The use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs)  as a route to force the buy-back of homes for use by the homeless formed part of an action plan requested by then housing secretary Shona Robison earlier this year.

A COSLA spokesman said:  “The contributing factors to homelessness vary considerably across housing authority areas.  

“In many places holiday homes and short-term lets take valuable properties out of the local rented sector. Bringing empty or mostly empty properties back into use in areas of high demand would be helpful as would more new build.  It doesn’t entirely matter who owns these as a key issue is the rise in unaffordable rents."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Tackling empty homes is a priority for Scottish Government. We continue to fund the work of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and councils already have broad compulsory purchase powers which can be used for a range of purposes.

“New powers enabling councils to charge up to double the full rate of council tax on second homes from 1 April 2024 have now been approved by Parliament. This change to council tax was a commitment made in the Programme for Government and aims to make sure the tax system works as an incentive to prioritise homes for living in."