Double council tax for 15,000 empty homes

More than 15,000 empty homes have been charged double council tax in an attempt to cut the number of unoccupied properties in Scotland.

BBC Scotland has found that some councils are earning over £1 million per year from the powers to charge extra levies on those with empty properties, while others had not used the powers at all.

Since April 2014, Scotland's local authorities have had the powers to charge 200% council tax on properties that have been unoccupied for more than a year. It does not apply to second or holiday homes, where the owner can prove they are used for more than 25 days a year.

The aim of the law change was to reduce the estimated 37,000 homes lying empty across the country. The discretionary charge was intended to encourage owners to bring empty properties back into use and reduce the blight of unoccupied homes.

Freedom of Information requests to all 32 Scottish local authorities showed that almost £36million of additional revenue has been raised in the past four years - about £12million last year.

Edinburgh, Fife and Perth and Kinross councils are earning more than £1 million per year from the powers to charge extra levies, while Aberdeen City Council claimed the most additional revenue under the policy with £2.4 million.

Glasgow City Council has just begun to use the levy in April. It said: "The premium exists to try to discourage owners from leaving properties vacant, which can have a detrimental impact on communities and encourage anti-social behaviour." The council has no figures for how many times it has used it so far.

South Ayrshire and West Lothian have also just started to use the powers.

East Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, South Lanarkshire, Orkney and Shetland do not currently charge extra council tax on long-term empty properties. 

However, East Ayrshire Council will introduce the empty homes levy in October.

Depute leader Elena Whitham said it had been important to get support mechanisms in place to offer help to owners faced with the threat of double council tax.

She said: "We've now created a full team to support this endeavour so we've got an empty homes officer, we've got teams to help people with restoration and a team to help seek funding.

"I think it really would have been counter-productive had we employed these measures before we had a team like this in place to make sure we can support owners."

She said bringing buildings back into use worked for everyone - providing extra income for the local authority, and improving the environment for neighbours. 

Angus Council has operated the policy of charging 200% council tax on long-term empty properties since 2015, and has so far claimed more than £866,000 through the levy. The BBC data showed there were 286 properties in Angus which could have double council tax levied on them in 2017. 

The local authority's Empty Homes Officer, Sean Maxwell said the policy had already paid dividends.  "Not only does it improve housing demand, it also has positive impacts on the local community," he said. 

"Obviously within Angus, we don't want to see unoccupied properties, we'd rather see these brought back into residential use and ultimately local families and local individuals staying in these houses."

The leader of Orkney Islands Council said it was time to reconsider the policy. 

Councillor James Stockan told BBC Radio Orkney that in the past the authority decided relatively low numbers of empty homes in their area meant it was not worth the effort of collecting the levy.

He said: "It's really good the BBC has done this piece of work because it has made us aware of where everybody else is now, and I think there is a real opportunity in the next year or two to reconsider this."

Shaheena Din, national manager for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, said the empty homes levy could bring revenues which would fund service to help owners get properties back into use.

She said: "On its own empty homes work won't fix out broken housing system.

"But it does have a part to play and it also contributes to a wide range of other council policy areas including safer communities and stronger local economies."

What does each council do?

  • Aberdeen - 1,063 empty houses charged double last year - £2.37m raised
  • Aberdeenshire - 677 empty houses charged last year - £520,642 raised
  • Angus - 286 empty houses charged last year - £270,165 raised
  • Argyll and Bute - 744 houses charged last year - £552,789 raised
  • Clackmannanshire - 76 houses last year - £45,000 raised
  • Dumfries and Galloway - 1,748 houses last year - £457,462 raised
  • Dundee - 275 houses last year - £279,888 raised
  • East Ayrshire - starting policy next month
  • East Dunbartonshire - starting April 2019
  • East Lothian - 256 empty houses charged last year - £78,590 raised
  • East Renfrewshire - No policy 
  • Edinburgh - 1,181 empty houses charged last year - £1.14m raised
  • Falkirk - 381 houses last year - £377,974 raised
  • Fife - 1,741 empty houses charged last year - £1.14m raised
  • Glasgow - Started charging in April 2018
  • Highland - 744 empty houses charged last year - £764,249 raised
  • Inverclyde - 731 empty houses charged last year - £122,000 raised
  • Midlothian - 249 charged last year (the first year it charged) - £127,567 raised
  • Moray - 339 houses last year - £298,715 raised
  • North Ayrshire - 465 houses charged last year - £279,930 raised
  • North Lanarkshire - 867 houses last year - £283,412 raised
  • Orkney - No policy
  • Perth and Kinross - 843 empty houses charged last year - £1.48m raised
  • Renfrewshire - 378 houses last year - £299,000 raised
  • Scottish Borders - 1,316 houses charged last year - £611,881 raised
  • Shetland - no policy
  • South Ayrshire - Started from April 2018
  • South Lanarkshire - no policy
  • Stirling - 319 houses last year - £282,781 raised
  • West Dunbartonshire - 65 houses charged last year - £23,031 raised
  • West Lothian - started from April 2018
  • Western Isles - 336 houses last year - £174,488 raised

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