THE number of homes sitting empty in York has increased by nearly 50 per cent - one of the sharpest rises in the country, according to Government figures.

The latest research by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government revealed that the number of “long-term vacant homes” in the city had risen from 359 in 2017 to 527 last year, a hike of 46.8 per cent.

York’s increase in empty homes - defined as being vacant for more than six months - is the fifth highest increase in the UK, behind Portsmouth, Hartlepool, Eastbourne, and Woking. In 2016 the number of vacant homes in York was at a record low of just 85.

The research looked at homes that are classed as empty under properties liable for paying council tax.

Of the 527 empty homes, 86 were local authority social housing, which has also seen a rise in vacant properties over the past two years from 34 in 2017.

The report further found that the number of overall vacant homes in York, which includes 345-second homes, short-term vacancies and homes recently put on the market, is now 2,063; an increase of 79 per cent from 1,115 empty homes recorded in 2016.

York Labour Group spokesman for housing, Cllr Michael Pavlovic, said that it was disturbing to see a rise in empty homes in the current housing crisis.

He said: “In a high housing cost/low wage economy like York’s, it’s essential that existing housing stock in the city is used to its full potential.

“The previous Labour council employed an empty homes officer to work on positive solutions to getting long-term empty private homes brought back into use, so it’s very disturbing to see more and more homes are sitting empty and unused given the current housing crisis the city faces.”

Earlier this month, the charity group Action on Empty Homes hosted a talk in York to address the growing worry over empty homes in the city.

Spokesman Chris Bailey said: “The rise in numbers in York of 47 per cent is amongst the highest in the UK. This is worrying at a time when local councils are spending a billion pounds a year housing those in desperate need of housing. What is challenging in any area is when we see a sharp rise, like York. This tells us something about how our national housing market is failing to deliver and how this is affecting local housing markets across England.

“What is critical is that every long-term empty home is a wasted opportunity to change lives for the better at a time of national housing crisis.

“We hope that our latest report can help councils everywhere see that while we all hope for further Government investment, every council can still make a difference if they can build the right partnerships locally.”

Tom Brittain, assistant director of housing and safer communities at City of York Council, said "like many areas of the UK" York had experienced a sudden spike in the number of homes left empty for six months or more.

He said: “In the past, spikes have been in part due to a buoyant housing and construction market, with homes being bought for conversion leading to longer preparation times for occupation.

“We carried out an audit of these homes in Spring this year and are supporting their owners to bring them back into use and encourage owners of long-term empty properties to contact the council for advice on this.

“In addition to this, since April 2019 we have started charging owners of homes left vacant for two or more years 200 per cent council tax to incentivise them to put them back into use, and help all owners of empty homes overcome barriers and support them to refurbish, sell or let the properties to be much-needed homes.”

City of York Council's new executive member for housing, Cllr Denise Craghill, of the Green Party, said that given the need for more affordable housing in York any increase in empty homes was "naturally a cause for concern".

She said: "It is certainly my intention to look at how we can reduce the number of long-term empty properties whether through enforcement action, revisiting previous work on ‘living above the shop’ in the city centre or in other ways.

"It is also part of our joint programme to explore all legal options for restricting the use of new housing for short-term and holiday lets. I would sound a note of caution, however, regarding some of these figures since some changes may be due to differences in how they are recorded. I will investigate this further with officers following my formal appointment next week.”

Action on Empty Homes made three key findings in its report. It said that “communities can deliver affordable housing from otherwise wasted resources, and in doing so rebuild essential community infrastructure, offering opportunities for real life change and enhancement to local people”.

It said local authorities can “invest to save” by supporting community-based neighbourhood regeneration approaches, including working with communities to develop neighbourhood improvement plans that tackle empty homes and the wider linked issues.

The charity's report further recommended that central government should adopt an investment programme targeted at areas with long-term empty homes to enable local authorities, social landlords and community-based organisations to buy or lease empty properties to refurbish them. It should also support wider community-based regeneration approaches that tackle the underlying causes of empty homes.