IF local authorities in Oxfordshire have a guilty secret it is the number of homes that are left empty for long periods without being put to good use.

Now the extent of the problem has emerged, with more than 5,600 empty homes in the county, including 1,749 unoccupied for six months of longer.

This figure sits uneasily next to another statistic, the total number on Oxford City Council’s housing waiting list (3,896).

The knock-on effect of high house prices in Oxford means the search for somewhere to live is very competitive and there are few options left for those who find themselves homeless.

Freeing up empty homes and returning them to use would be one way of addressing the shortage, but achieving this aim can be costly for councils as some properties are tied up in legal red tape and compulsory purchase orders can take a long time to come into force.

Since the Local Government Act 2003, councils have had discretion over council tax discounts on empty properties. Local authorities in the county have already started to penalise property owners by removing council tax discounts or increasing council tax premiums for longer-term empty homes.

Property owners, of course, do have rights, so council staff have to negotiate with them to achieve the best possible outcome.

The problem of empty homes is not going to go away overnight and councils are taking sensible steps to address the issue.

By talking to each other they can identify the methods that work best.

The total number of empty homes is falling, but it is not surprising that those on the housing waiting list are frustrated when they see a boarded-up property.