The number of houses and flats standing empty for at least six months in the West Midlands has risen for the first time this decade.

New government data has revealed there were 10,084 “long-term” vacant properties across the metropolitan county at the end of October.

That was up from 9,778 the previous year and follows year-on-year decreases since 2010, when there were 15,408 long-term vacant properties.

A long-term vacant property is defined as one which has been unlived in, and unfurnished, for at least six months.

The data - published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government - includes privately-owned homes as well as those owned by councils or other not-for-profit bodies.

While numbers were up very slightly in Birmingham - from 4,280 long-term vacants in 2017 to 4,283 in 2018 - it was Sandwell and Wolverhampton which drove the trend.

Sandwell had 1,073 long-term vacant properties in October 2018, up from 802 in October 2017. Wolverhampton had 1,401 in 2018, up from 1,313 in 2017.

Paul Noblet, Head of Public Affairs at homelessness charity Centrepoint, said: “It is concerning that there are so many long-term vacant properties in England in the midst of a housing crisis.

“There are already many barriers blocking the homeless young people we support, and many other people up and down the country, from accessing affordable housing.

“A growing number of vacant properties shouldn’t be another.

“The government needs to be tougher on property developers; reducing the number of properties built and sold for investment while also increasing the number of genuinely affordable properties.

“In addition more funding, in the form of grants and loans, should be made available to help landlords bring vacant properties, which may be too expensive to bring back in to use, back on to the market with councils able to recoup those loans when they property is eventually sold or inherited.”

 

There are many reasons why a private home can end up empty - for instance, when someone dies suddenly, or when an elderly homeowner moves into care.

In some places, though, property speculators buy flats or houses with the sole intention of keeping them empty while they increase in value, before selling them on.

Councils have a number of powers to try to tackle empty homes, including - in some cases - the ability to force a compulsory purchase. That can be a complex process, however.

Up to 2013, properties that were “unoccupied and substantially unfurnished” were exempt from council tax for up to six months, and thereafter received a discount of up to 50 per cent.

 

Now, however, council can not only forgo this discount but can also charge an “empty homes premium” - meaning homes empty for two years can be liable for 150 per cent of the normal council tax.

The government has also offered a financial incentive, called the New Homes Bonus, which offered money for every property brought back into use.

The number of long-term vacant properties had been falling steadily for a decade until 2017.

Across England, there were 299,999 homes empty for at least six months in October 2010 - but only 200,145 in October 2016.

The number then rose to 205,293 in October 2017 and has now risen again - to 216,186 - as of October 2018.