EMPTY homes in Witney and the surrounding area could be brought back into use to tackle the housing crisis.

West Oxfordshire District Council is today set to discuss a strategy for how to deal with long-term empty houses which could see more than 400 across the area returned to use.

A report to the cabinet said the five-year strategy would try to bring homes classed as long-term empty (vacant for more than six months) back into use.

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The strategy would also seek to maintain a list of the long-term empty properties in West Oxfordshire and provide advice and information to help raise awareness about empty properties.

According to the report there are currently 418 properties classed as long-term empty in West Oxfordshire, as of August 2019.

At the same time there is a huge demand for affordable housing in the district, with 2,351 applications registered on the council house waiting list in 2018.

And 702 people came to the council to declare themselves as homeless and in need of housing last year.

The number of households placed into temporary accommodation in 2018 was 76.

Council leader James Mills said the council hoped the owners of empty homes would want to work with the local authority to bring their properties into use.

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Mr Mills said: "Anyone who lives in Oxfordshire will know it is an expensive part of the country to live in and as a council we have been looking at the different ways we can assist people have a safe and secure home.

"There is no single silver bullet to solve the housing problems that are faced locally.

"This policy is another way for us to get more housing into use."

To help address the local need for housing, the report said there would be a four-stage approach to bringing empty houses back into use.

This would start with finding out which homes are empty, then the property owner would be given advice on how they could bring it into use as a rented home for someone else.

The council would then monitor the progress of bringing the property into use by giving the homeowner a deadline to get it done.

If the owner did not bring it back into use, then as a last resort the council would ‘use enforcement powers’ to stop it being an empty home.

These powers could include a compulsory purchase of the empty house.

Oxford Mail:

Witney town centre. Picture: Google Maps.

Two other measures which the council could take would be an enforced sale of the property, or an 'empty dwelling management order', both of which would have a similar affect to a compulsory purchase: taking the home out of the owner's hands and putting it up for sale.

There is also a long list of other enforcement measures suggested for the council to use to bring an empty home into use.

Mr Mills added the policy could be a ‘win for everybody involved’, and compulsory purchases were included as a measure of what ‘might happen, rather than what the council wants to happen’.

He said: “As the policy sets out, we would look to be working with the property owner in the first place to see what assistance we could give them.”

Lib Dem councillor for Ascott and Shipton, Jake Acock, said the strategy would have a huge affect on the residents of his ward.

Mr Acock said: “I have seen some empty houses in Ascott and Shipton. It is one of the most wealthy wards in West Oxfordshire. Lots of people have second homes here but some of them are empty homes.”

He said the Lib Dems on the council would seek to introduce a second home premium to the council tax on second homes which had been empty for a long time, to encourage the property owners to rent them out to locals.

But Mr Acock added that the report’s mention of compulsory purchase of second homes would be a measure he would not support, and warned against penalising second home owners living in West Oxfordshire who contributed to the local economy and community.

He said: “I think compulsory purchase of a building which has been empty for more than six months is wrong.

“There are second home residents who have invested in the local area, they sit on the parish council, they get involved in the playground clean up.”

Mr Acock said he would be interested to see how the council planned to monitor homes to see if they had been empty for more than six months.

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Councils are not legally required duty to maintain a register of homes empty for more than six months.

However, a charity called Action on Empty Homes has recommended local councils across England should put a strategy in place to manage these buildings to help tackle the housing crisis.

The report also said that West Oxfordshire District Council ‘is committed to tackling empty properties’ and would do this by supporting owners to help return their property to use.

It added: “Empty properties constitute a wasted housing resource, both for individual owners and the local community. Long-term empty properties can fall into a state of disrepair and become dangerous as well as having a negative environmental impact.”

In January, it was revealed there were a similar number of empty homes in Oxford as there currently are in West Oxfordshire.

A freedom of information request revealed there were 428 homes in Oxford registered as long term empty, but the city council has not taken action on some of them for years.

The owner of one property, Martin Young, said no action had been taken to buy his empty property on Cowley Road since a compulsory purchase order was considered in 2015.

Since 2010, central government has stressed the importance of returning empty homes to use.

Statistics published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government put the number of empty homes in England in October 2017 at 605,897. Of these 205,293 were classed as long-term empty homes

West Oxfordshire District Council is due to discuss the long term housing strategy at 2pm today.