MORE than 1,500 homes in Stroud are sitting empty as councils face the huge task of finding safe places for the homeless to stay during the coronavirus lockdown.

The Local Government Association has raised concerns about the number of properties lying vacant across the country at a time of chronic shortage, after the Government gave councils a deadline to house people for the duration of the outbreak.

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government figures show that 1,617 homes in Stroud were empty at the most recent count in October – a five-year high.

Of those, 650 were classed as long-term vacancies, meaning they had been unoccupied for at least six months.

The number of vacant dwellings in the area was higher than a year previously, when there were 1,511.

And there were far more than the 988 counted in 2004, the earliest year with comparable data.

Across England, there were 648,000 vacant properties last October – a seven-year high.

More than a third of these had been left gathering dust for half a year or more.

Housing minister Luke Hall wrote to councils last month, giving them a deadline of March 29 to ensure all “rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless” were housed in appropriate accommodation.

But the LGA said some councils would need “urgent help” from the Government to house their homeless.

Responding to the empty homes figures, an LGA spokesman said: “Some councils continue to face challenges securing accommodation, not helped by the recent closures of hotels and caravan parks, and some insurance policies which may limit the ability of some hotel owners to take part in housing rough sleepers.

“Councils also often encounter difficulties where rough sleepers refuse to engage or take up the offer of help.

“It is concerning that so many homes are left empty at a time of chronic housing shortage, and allowing councils to charge up to 300% of council tax on long-term empty homes will help them to address this.”

But the spokesman said bringing empty homes into use was just one solution to the nation’s housing problems.

In the long-term, the Government should reform Right to Buy so councils can keep all the cash from sales of properties in order to replace them, he added.

The National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations across England, said empty homes could provide a secure, affordable roof over the heads of those most in need.

Head of policy Will Jeffwitz added: “This is especially important during this current crisis for people who are homeless or stuck in temporary accommodation, as well as those in overcrowded, insecure homes, who are expected to stay indoors all day for weeks on end.

"As not-for-profit organisations rooted in local communities, housing associations are well-placed to help bring a number of these empty homes back into use for much-needed social housing.”

An MHCLG spokeswoman said: “This is a huge joint effort, and we all need to come together – the UK Government, local councils, charities, health and care services and accommodation providers – to get everyone who is sleeping rough off the streets and into appropriate accommodation.

“We are supporting councils in England with £3.2 million to specifically help rough sleepers and a further £1.6 billion to respond to the wider pressures during this national emergency.”

A spokesman for Stroud District Council said: "“There are a lot of very good reasons why a property can be empty in the short term. A significant number are in probate for example and others will be having repairs undertaken, or are being marketed for sale and there is good evidence to show that they will naturally be returned to use within 6 to 12 months.

"In October 2019 homes that had been empty for more than 12 months represented 0.78% of the total housing stock in the district, with 187 dwellings being empty for more than 2 years.

"Stroud District Council has a robust empty homes strategy and dedicated resources to implementing that policy where property has been empty over 6 months. Advice is offered to owners on how to bring property back into use through action such as renting and an empty homes loan is available. Where a property is causing anti-social behaviour appropriate enforcement action will be taken. Last year 22 long term empty units were brought back into use through action undertaken by the Council.

"Since 2016 Stroud District Council has charged an additional 50% Council Tax to long term empty properties which have been unoccupied and unfurnished for more than 2 years and in 2019 increased this to 100% from 1st April 2020 for those properties which have been empty for 2 years and over; to 200% from 1st April 2020 for those properties which have been empty for 5 years and over and to 300% from 1st April 2021 for those properties which have been empty for 10 years and over.

"In response to the Coronavirus pandemic we identified all available empty council properties, including those scheduled for future demolition, and are working to get them habitable and supplied with the necessary furniture and household basics so that they are ready for those who need them.”