HOUSING bosses have vowed to take a 'tough' stance on homes that have long sat empty as they create a new strategy to tackle the problem.

Oxford City Council said its current plan to bring vacant buildings back into use was now out of date and needed refreshing.

It has reduced the number of empty homes from 717 in April 2009 to 303 in March 2017 but said there remained a 'hard-core' of properties that would remain unoccupied without action.

The new strategy, for 2018 to 2021, would focus on how to 'target and enforce against' homes empty for two years or more, a report to the housing scrutiny panel said.

Empty property officer Melanie Mutch said: "Greater emphasis will also be placed on working to help enable the delivery of new homes.

"This can be achieved by identifying empty dwellings and commercial sites suitable for development or change of use.

"Whilst most empty dwellings are brought back into use without the need to take formal action, there is a hard-core of properties that will remain unoccupied without intervention.

"With continuing support and commitment, these dwellings will be brought back into use."

A recent application for a compulsory purchase order to acquire a vacant property in Rose Hill 'demonstrated' the council's resolve, she said.

Oxford East MP Andrew Smith has previously called for tougher rules that could see the owners of empty homes forced to pay higher rates of council tax on the properties.

He said this would be a strong incentive to bring more homes back into use 'with the housing need we face'.

It comes after an Oxford Mail investigation revealed there were 505 empty homes in Oxford last November, including one that had been out of use for 27 years.

At that time 76 homes had been empty for more than two years but the report by Ms Mutch said that figure had now dropped to 66.

But the number of empty homes remains considerably higher than the number of families staying in temporary accommodation, with the properties long seen as an obvious way to help meet housing demand.

The council can detect empty homes through various methods, including council tax records.

When a homeowner does not want to bring it back into use, the council can serve notices to force them to make improvements, apply for an empty dwelling management order or apply for a compulsory purchase order.

There is also a cash incentive to bring more homes back into use, as this is included as criteria for the 'new homes bonus' paid by the Government to councils.