Bringing empty homes back into use: audit of privately owned empty homes

An independent audit of long-term empty homes policy and interventions in Scotland.

3. Empty homes in Scotland

The scale of empty homes in Scotland

In Scotland, the official definition and subsequent quantification of empty homes is generally determined by council tax definitions[9]. These are:

  • Long-term empty properties: properties which have been empty for more than 6 months and are liable for council tax. A 100% premium (double the full rate) can be applied by local authorities to homes that have been empty for more than 12 months.
  • Unoccupied exemptions: generally, properties which are empty and unfurnished for less than 6 months and exempt from paying council tax.
  • Second homes: homes which are furnished and lived in for at least 25 days in a 12-month period but not as someone’s main residence.[10]

Since 2008 the number of empty homes, second homes and unoccupied exemptions in Scotland have increased by 4% from 109,876 dwellings to the current estimated total of 114,308 at September 2022 (Figure 1). However, over the last decade the increase has slowed to 2%.

In relation to long-term empty properties (empty for more than 6 months[11]), the number has increased to a high point of 47,333 in 2020 (which can partly be explained by the housing market closure during the covid-19 pandemic) before reducing to 43,766 in 2021 and to 42,865 in 2022. That is a reduction of 2% in the most recent period, but over the last decade long-term empty properties have increased from 25,454 in 2012 to 42,865 in 2022 – an increase of 68%.

The 42,865 figure for long-term empty homes includes all tenures. The specific focus of this report and the local authority survey results is on long-term empty homes in the private sector. No precise estimate of the overall number of private sector long-term empty homes is currently available. It is possible from local authority management returns to calculate the number of public sector vacant properties vacant for 26 weeks to 2 years and over 2 years[12], which totals 3,714. This data is as at 31 March 2021, so is not directly comparable to the 42,865 total, which is for September 2022. Comparing the long-term empty estimate for local authority properties (3,714) with the total number of long-term (6 months or more) empty properties as at September 2021 (43,766) gives an estimate of approximately 8% of long-term empty properties being local authority stock. However, this doesn’t include long-term empty properties for the housing association stock so would be a significant underestimate for the social sector as a whole.

Figure 1: Empty properties in Scotland year to end September 2008 – 2022
A vertical bar chart showing empty properties in Scotland year to end September, from September 2008 - 2022.

Source: Housing Statistics for Scotland Quarterly Update: New Housebuilding and Affordable Housing Supply (published 24 January 2023)

The current level of long-term empty homes (empty for more than 6 months) is equivalent to 1.6% of all dwellings in Scotland.

The small reduction in long-term empty properties of 2% over the one year period to September 2022 occurred against the backdrop of a slight increase in second homes of 2% (from 23,890 in 2021 to 24,287 in 2022) and an increase in unoccupied exemptions of 3% (from 45,801 in 2021 to 47,153 in 2022). The peak in long-term empty homes in 2020 is widely considered to be associated with the Covid-19 pandemic when the halting of construction work and delays in sales had an impact on flow of stock through the housing system[13].

Compared to the 68% increase of long-term empty properties over the past decade, unoccupied exemptions saw a comparatively modest increase from 45,833 in 2012 to 47,156 in 2022 (3% increase), and second homes reduced significantly from 40,599 to 24,287 in 2022 (40% decrease).

It is important to note that the relationship between the recording of the three groups has changed over time. From 1st April 2013 local authorities gained the discretionary power to remove the empty properties discount or set a council tax increase of 100% on certain properties which have been empty for over 12 months. This, along with associated improvements in the data held by local authorities, has led to the reclassification of a number of properties and has had a significant bearing on the year-on-year changes in the figures. In 2014 and 2015 in particular, there was a significant increase in long-term empty properties, with a significant reduction in second homes and unoccupied exemptions in 2014 which immediately followed the local authorities’ new powers in 2013. The way that taxes and premiums impact on empty homes and associated data limitations is explored further below.

Variation by area

Comparing the level of long-term empty properties (empty for more than 6 months) with the total dwelling estimates for each local authority in 2021 (the latest year for which dwelling estimates are available), we see a range in the prevalence of long-term empty properties from 5% of dwellings in the Shetland Islands 4% in Na-h-Eileanan Siar and 3% in Aberdeen to less than 0.5% in East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, compared to Scotland’s 1.6% (Figure 2). Interviews with local authorities and stakeholders confirmed that the variability of the proportion of empty homes can be driven by a range of factors including the type of housing market e.g. if there has been an economic downturn such as in Aberdeen (since around 2014), or if there are depopulation factors such as found in many remote parts of Scotland (discussed further in later chapters).

It is widely acknowledged that the longer a property is left empty, the more challenging it may become to undertake any remedial work to the property to enable it to be occupied or sold. The latest data for Scotland[14] estimates that of the properties that had been empty for more than 6 months, just under two-thirds (27,692 or 65%) had been empty for over 12 months, with 20,279 of these having a council tax discount below 10% or a council tax increase which the local authority had applied under their discretionary powers (as outlined above).

Figure 3 shows how the proportion of long-term empty properties being empty for 12 months or more varies by local authority, ranging from all, or almost all the empty properties in Midlothian, Glasgow and Highland to fewer than 40% of properties in South Ayrshire, City of Edinburgh and East Renfrewshire (which had none reported).

Figure 2: Proportion of dwellings long-term empty over 6 months, by LA (2022) %
A horizontal bar chart showing the proportion of dwellings that are long-term empty over 6 months in 2022, by local authority. The Shetland Islands have the highest proportion and East Renfrewshire has the lowest.

Source: Housing statistics: empty properties and second homes and 2022 dwelling estimates from CT-Base, September 2022

Figure 3: % of long-term empty homes empty for 12 months+ (year to end September, 2022)
A horizontal bar chart showing the proportion of homes that have been long-term empty for 12 months or more by local authority, year to end September 2022. Midlothian has the highest proportion and East Renfrewshire has the lowest.

Source: Housing statistics: empty properties and second homes

Figure 4 below shows that as at September 2021 (the most recent data for which dwelling estimates are available), large urban areas are where the vast majority of the long-term empty properties (empty for more than 6 months) in Scotland are situated. However, remote rural areas have the highest percentage of their housing stock empty for 6 months or more (3.0%), while accessible small towns have the lowest percentage of their dwellings classed as long-term empty (1.1%).

Figure 4: Number and % of long-term empty homes by rurality (year to end September, 2021)
A vertical bar chart showing the number of long-term empty properties by rurality, year to end September 2021. A line graph is plotted across the bar chart showing the number of empty properties as a proportion of the total number of dwellings.

Source: National Records of Scotland (Household and Dwelling Estimates by Urban Rural Classification (2011 Data Zone based) | National Records of Scotland ( Scottish Government analysis

Figure 5 shows the distribution of long-term empty properties (empty for more than 6 months) across the SIMD deciles, where 1 is the most deprived and 10 is the least deprived. This shows that the number and proportion of long-term empty properties is highest among properties in the 6th decile (and lowest in the 9th).

Figure 5: Number and % of long-term empty homes by SIMD (year to end September, 2021)
A vertical bar chart showing the number of long-term empty properties by SIMD decile, where 1 is the most deprived and 10 is the least deprived. A line graph is plotted across the bar chart showing the number of empty properties as a proportion of the total number of dwellings.

Source: National Records of Scotland (Household and Dwelling Estimates by Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) | National Records of Scotland ( Scottish Government analysis

UK comparisons

In England, there have been significant flutuations in the number of long-term empty homes (empty for more than 6 months) since 2008. However, over the decade from 2012 to 2022, the level of long-term empty homes decreased by 2%. The latest figure for England of 248,633 is 1% of all dwellings (compared to Scotland’s 1.6%), with a 5% increase on the 2021 figure (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Long-term empty properties in England 2004-2022
A vertical bar chart showing long-term empty properties in England for the years 2004 to 2022.

Statistical data sets - live tables on dwelling stock including vacants ( (These are defined as properties liable for council tax that have been empty for more than six months and that are not subject to Empty Homes Discount class D or empty due to specific flooding events.)

Figure 7: Number of chargeable empty and second homes, by year (number of dwellings) – Wales
A vertical stacked bar chart showing the number of chargeable long-term empty and second homes in Wales for the periods 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-2022.

Source: Statswales - Local Government Finance Council Tax (Dwellings - chargeable empty and second homes by local authority)

The number of long-term empty properties in Wales increased from 24,830 in 2018-19 to 25,701 in 2021-22 (up 4%) (Figure 7). Over the same period, second homes increased from 23,426 to 24,873 (up 6%). The 25,701 long-term empty homes are 1.8% of dwellings (slightly higher to Scotland’s 1.6%). Data is not available to compare the period from 2012 to 2022.

Comparable trend data is not available for Northern Ireland. At January 2021, the total empty homes registered was 20,569 – with 4,206 new additions indicating that 3,753 properties had been removed over an 11 month period[15]. That is an estimated 2.5% of properties, higher than Scotland’s 1.6% rate.

Therefore, while there is a mixed picture in Scotland, when we look across the reduction in empty properties alongside the increase in second homes and unoccupied exemptions, Scotland has fared similarly to Wales, but the proportion of long-term empty homes in Scotland has been slightly higher than the English long-term empty homes rate in the most recent period. Significantly, over the last decade, England has seen empty properties reduce by 2% while Scotland has seen an increase of 68%, although in Scotland, this was accompanied by a 40% reduction in second homes. This change in Scotland could potentially reflect local authorities’ discretionary powers in 2013 provided in 2013 to remove the empty properties discount or set a council tax increase of 100%, which coincided with a reclassification of a number of properties. Comparable data for second homes over the same period is not available in the English empty homes data. However, the latest English Household Survey data for 2018-19[16] showed an increase in second homes from an estimated 572,000 in 2008-09 to 772,000 in 2018-19 (an increase of 35%). These significant differences may be explained by approaches to data collection and categorisation of empty homes, and the changes between categories may be driven by taxation.

International comparisons

OECD data on vacant housing[17] found that vacancy rates vary across countries. Among those countries for which data are available for 2020, Malta, Japan, Cyprus and Hungary record the largest share of vacant dwellings, at over 12%. By contrast, vacancy rates are lowest in Iceland, Switzerland and England at less than 3%, compared to Scotland’s current prevalence rate of 1.6%. Vacancy rates in other European countries were somewhat higher – Netherlands (5%), Denmark (6%), France & Germany (8%) and Ireland (9%).

The share of vacant dwellings is larger in rural areas, compared to urban areas, in all countries except Portugal (though the difference is very small). The biggest differences in vacancy rates between rural and urban areas are recorded in Chile (over 15%) and the Czech Republic (nearly 12%).

This means the Scottish vacancy rate of just under 2% is comparable with the lowest rates among OECD countries. However, as shown above, there is significant variation across Scotland, with some local authorities with considerably higher than average vacancy rates.

Local authority survey data on long-term empty homes

All Scottish local authorities were asked through the quantitiative survey to provide a current estimate of the number of long-term empty properties that had been empty for at least 6 months. A total of 26 out of 29 respondents were able to provide a current estimate of the number of long-term empty homes with the total across these 26 local authorities being 30,608 properties. This estimate, based on around 80% of local authorities is 71% of the official published figure reported in September 2022 across 32 local authorities[18] (or 81%, if it was proportionate to the proportion of responses received).[19]

This difference in numbers between the official statistics and the number reported through the survey may indicate variation across the year, or it may also indicate that the survey figures were not reported on a basis consistent to the September officially reported data. In particular, the survey asked respondents for “privately owned residential properties that have been empty for a period of 6 months or more”. Therefore, the variation may indicate that specifically excluding local authority or RSL stock produced lower numbers than the data provided in September 2022, which would have included all tenures.

Some respondents may also have excluded exempt properties. However, local authorities were not asked through the survey to show exactly what type of long-term empty properties were included in their figures, or whether this included or excluded exemptions, so it is difficult to determine exactly why the numbers differed. There were some comments in the survey which indicated that some local authorities were skeptical about the ‘official’ statistics and how useful these were in identifying and prioritising empty homes. One survey respondent highlighted the issue of what long-term empty ‘means’:

“A more general point is that a home being empty for 6-12 months might not be unusual or lead to a problem in the long term if it's being renovated, subject to an Estate being settled etc. so we need to think about what we mean by long-term empty” (local authority survey respondent).

This point was confirmed in interviews, as illustrated by one local authority participant who was conscious that the data analysis they had conducted for the survey was not comparable with the September data return, as the estimate provided for the survey was what the Empty Homes Officer (EHO) and colleagues judged to be the most accurate figure.

“It's sorted to take out some of the other things that probably would have been in the CTAXBASE report. […] I think there's probably an alignment needed between what is asked for in relation to empty homes for the annual CTAXBASE Scottish Government return and what the current definition of empty homes is and what [Empty Homes] officers across the country actually understand it to be.” (City local authority)

There is currently no official published data on the type, size and characteristics of empty homes properties in Scotland. This is because the Council Tax Register (CTR) which is the source for the official annual return on empty homes does not collect this data.

Local authority survey respondents were asked what they knew about the properties that had been empty for six months or more. A minority of respondents (only 5 out of 29) were able to provide an assessment of the type of empty properties. In three of the five cases the majority of empty properties were houses, while in two out of the five cases these were flats. No-one was able to provide an assessment of the size of the empty homes reported.

Similarly, just six respondents were able to comment on what proportion of empty properties were in low or high demand housing market areas. Half of these indicated that the majority of empty properties were in high demand locations while no-one indicated that the majority of empty properties were low demand, and others indicated more mixed demand.

Fourteen of the 29 respondents were able to indicate how empty properties were spread across urban and rural areas. Of these, about half indicated that the majority of empty properties were in large urban or other urban settings while a third were predominantly in remote rural settings. Others had more of a spread of empty homes across different types of location.

Only around half of respondents (14) were able to say to what extent empty properties in their area had been assessed for their potential to be brought back into use. These responses showed:

  • in most of these areas (9 out of 14) less than 20% of properties had been assessed
  • three other local authorities reported assessing between 20% and 40% of empty properties
  • two local authorities stated that 98% and 100% of empty properties had been assessed

Of the nine local authorities that were able to provide an estimate of the proportion of empty properties assessed as being able to be brought back into use:

  • four said that more than 90% of properties could be brought back into use
  • three people said fewer than 5% could be brought back into use
  • two respondents said 20% and 50% could be brought back into use

Of the six local authorities who were able to comment on the level of work required:

  • half said that 10%-20% of properties needed little or no investment and 50%-60% needed some investment
  • two of these six said that 30%-40% needed significant investment
  • four out of six said just 20% needed significant investment

It should be noted that because the number of local authorities that were able to assess the empty properties was so small, these findings should not be generalised for empty homes across Scotland a whole. What the survey findings clearly show is the limitation of the CTR to provide in-depth data on the characteristics of empty homes, and the lack of overall assessment by local authorities of the condition of these empty homes and their potential, therefore making it difficult to forecast the financial input and interventions necessary to bring Scotland’s empty homes back into use. Many local authorities in the survey open responses and through interviews highlighted the limitations in data and resources as discussed further below.

Data challenges

Challenges relating to empty homes data is well documented in wider evidence. It is argued that the CTR as the main source of data can be unreliable, since it relies on owners self-reporting empty homes, and this self-reporting behaviour may be affected by any additional premium or discounts that apply (Dunning & Moore 2020[20]). As outlined above, in 2013 and 2014, the number of properties classed as long-term empty in Scotland rose, potentially in part as a result of reclassification exercises carried out by local authorities.

In addition, literature highlights that given Council Tax data is the main data source on the number of empty homes, undercounting may arise from property types which are not captured by Council Tax recording methods. In England and Wales, derelict homes are not classified as dwellings for the purposes of Council Tax which can lead to a situation where some of the most problematic long-term empties, causing the greatest impact on communities, are not represented in the figures (Action on Empty Homes 2019[21]; Wilson et al 2020[22]). Empty commercial properties are also not captured, which may lead to missed opportunities to convert this stock as part of regeneration in line with the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Action Plan[23]. A recommendation of the Welsh Assembly Government’s 2019 report[24] on empty homes was to progress the design of a method of data collection which is not reliant on the council tax valuation list,and includes derelict and non-residential properties.

An Empty Houses citizen social science pilot project undertaken in England investigated mobilising the public to collect data about empty homes. The study found that citizen reporting is potentially useful and contributes to changing attitudes on addressing empty homes through the notion of citizen duty (Albert 2021[25]). A trawl of Scottish local authority web-sites searching for ‘report an empty home’ found that seven local authorities had a specific online form to report empty homes, 15 had clear instructions with an email contact for the EHO or another contact (with a few linking to the SEHP website) but for 10 local authorities it was not clear how to report an empty home, with links to council tax discount information only, or no other relevant information. Two of these local authorities had email contacts for empty homes officers but did not explain what they did.

Other methods mentioned in literature include using censuses, electricity consumption records (Pearson 2018[26]), data from other types of tax records and the postal service (Manda 2015[27]). This was an area highlighted by one of the stakeholders for this research where it was suggested that other agencies (such as lenders, utility companies and factors) should be able to provide data to indicate when properties become empty, but in a way that does not contravene data protection legislation.

Opinion from local authorities and stakeholders on data quality issues

Issues around data challenges were discussed further through interviews with local authorities and wider stakeholders categorised in the analysis as data sources and quality; access to information; and support from SEHP on data analysis.

Data sources and quality

It was clear from interviews that there was a variety of approaches to data collection and analysis on empty homes, with the officers limited by the basic data, inaccuracy and lack of currency of data within the CTR. Data collection and analysis processes were often described as basic, and unintegrated with the CTR. Many described their approach as an Excel spreadsheet or Access database for empty homes case management, combined with reports or read only access to the CTR. There were a few examples where EHOs had developed bespoke approaches of integrating different data sources to develop a comprehensive database with different variables on size, type, condition, referral source etc, but these were in the minority. It was also noted that SEHP is increasingly supporting individual local authorities in data analysis to help them target specific areas for empty homes interventions (discussed further below).

Several local authorities discussed their processes for getting data from finance colleagues and then supplementing this data from various sources including the general public, other council departments, complaints, councillors and housing officers. For some this seemed to be systematic, but for others this was much less so, with one example having no recording or analysis mechanisms for empty homes. There was, however, a clear desire from many participants to improve the data collection and analysis processes, including data on size and condition, but achieving this was argued as highly constrained by resources and competing priorities. There was no obvious trend in the type of local authorities that had more systematic approaches to data collection and analysis (included examples of larger, smaller, city and rural authorities), or in the amount of EHO resources (with examples of several full time, and with one part-time officer).

“We have a system where we get a monthly update from Council Tax and it’s an extract that fits into our Microsoft Access database. We have an online reporting facility and we also have elected members who report empty homes, members of the public report and staff in other departments – Environmental Health, the Private Sector team, RSLs, SEHP.” (Urban/rural local authority)

“There is definitely room and scope for improvement and we are working with data and Insights team to look at how we can better capture the data, see how we can potentially get a database or a system in place to help us monitor the data that we have. We have a database ourself but it is basically an Excel spreadsheet. Automation is what we are working towards, in terms of digitisation.” (City local authority).

Fife Council – Empty Homes data analysis and pilot scheme

Fife Council compile a database of empty properties to enable them to prioritise cases. They make an initial assessment based on the council tax list and cross-reference this with property information, in conjunction with colleagues from the Housing Strategy team. Cases are prioritised through various criteria including length of time empty, complaints from neighbours or other stakeholders. At the same time some proactive work is undertaken by tracing and contacting owners where potential buy-backs may be an option, and the Empty Homes Officer liaises with the Council’s buy-back teams.

Fife also undertook a pilot scheme in 2021 in which all empty property owners within one area were contacted. There was a mailing to a small focused area where it was found there was an above average proportion of empty homes. This approach was taken to see whether this would work better than waiting for people to complain, to take a proactive rather than reactive approach. It was considered to be a worthwhile exercise, but resource intensive, especially in the context of one part-time Empty Homes Officer. A bigger area may be considered, but it was noted this would take up a lot more resources and the Council has to balance proactive work with dealing with reactive work with empty homes being brought to the Council through complaints.

It is important to note that some EHOs were not necessarily using the council tax data as the base as a source for their caseload data. Many recorded live cases brought to their attention through a range of sources and then built up a case database from there, and the council tax data was used to verify (or not) that the case was an empty property - in some cases the property was empty but not recorded as such on the CTR, or vice versa.

This highlights the issue around inaccuracy of data from the CTR to which many local authorities referred. Several local authority participants provided examples of clear errors in the council tax data runs, and referred to the difficulties caused regarding collection dates which it was argued could mean the figure for homes empty between 6 and 12 months could be less reliable than the figure for empty homes for longer than 12 months because of how its recorded. There were also instances of a few councils with very low numbers of empty properties between 6 and 12 months, which may indicate some inconsistency in how these were being captured. This may relate to the issue about the date at which exemptions, discounts and how discretion were applied. One extreme example was cited by one local authority where the EHO responded to a neighbour complaint about a property that had been empty for 12 years, and on checking the property on the CTR, it had the property recorded as occupied. One stakeholder argued that the council tax premium introduces a deterrent for declaring their property as empty and therefore limits access to information on the full extent of empty homes:

“Some of them [empty properties] don't appear on council tax because the properties are empty, but they're down as [someone] living in the property ….we have a lot of work to do to try and trace the owners.” (Urban/rural local authority)

“And I think there's also the harder to measure bit, with the mismatches in information data cleansing sort of stuff where you realise that Council Tax records for whatever reason, whether it be that just an account remains in the wrong name because they can't follow it up, and if nobody tells them, nobody tells them, but it's an empty and you investigate - you correct their records.” (City local authority)

“I'm frustrated that council tax is the main data supply because it's not actually accurate. It's not likely that somebody will pay 200% council tax if they're living in the property, but it is likely that somebody could have an empty property and choose not to tell the council - and just pay the 100% council tax. So actually, there could be more empty homes than we think, if we're relying on council tax alone.” (Wider stakeholder)

The issue relating to inaccuracy of data on to the length of time properties were empty meant for some councils that the data could not be reliably used to target the longest-term empties, with those over 6 months empty commonly relying on further investigation, or complaints. It was the longer-term empties that EHOs said were most often the higher priorities that they needed to know about and target, or those that are causing harm or a nuisance.

“I've got quite a few in my caseload that has been brought to my attention by neighbours or councillors, and they're not on the Council Tax Register. So we've got to do a lot of work to, to kind of try and trace the owners because Council Tax don't have data on them.” (Urban/rural local authority)

One local authority further illustrated the focus on long-term empties over 12 months, suggesting that looking at all empty properties over 6 months was neither required, nor practical in terms of the resources at their disposal:

“I think when I think of long-term empties, my mind goes to 12 months plus because I think sometimes something that's been empty for 6-7 months is not a particularly going to transpire as an issue, might be a lot of legitimate reasons for that, people dealing with the estates or just trying to sell and doing different things. So we've tended to look at the ones that we would call 12 months or even longer, I suppose. I think that's been our focus.” (City local authority)

Other interviewees also spoke about the mismatch of information, or where there was a need for cleansing of council tax data which happened at varying timescales. It was noted that often it was the EHO who provided information to the Council Tax department on the property or owner status as a result of their investigative role.

Participants also identified that a major short-coming of using the CTR was that it relied on residents updating their own details. For example, if a Direct Debit for an empty property continued to be paid, there would be no mechanism to flag an empty property (unless it was reported by a neighbour/other party), and if there was a payment default and a property had been abandoned, there may be a significant delay before a property was recorded as empty until the default processes caught up with the situation and the property was recorded as vacant. In addition, the mechanisms and the availability of resources for checking whether a property was declared and classified correctly as long-term empty, second homes or unoccupied exemptions were perceived to differ significantly from area to area.

One local authority pointed to the underlying complexity in the figures, which is not apparent in the published statistics, so limiting the comparability of data. The published empty homes data does not detail the reasons for unoccupied exemptions or the length of time that unoccupied exemptions have applied for, and this might include some very long-term empty properties. There were the standard unoccupied exemption figures that were generated, but this local authority also publicly reported a break down between the properties that were empty and exempt from council tax. These could be:

  • properties that had been occupied, that have just become empty and unfurnished, subject to an exemption
  • properties under statute, which is generally closing or demolition orders to fit with the council tax legislation
  • deceased owners where the estate hasn't been settled or grant of confirmation issued
  • properties held for demolition
  • people living or detained elsewhere so that could be people living in care or prison

This amount of detailed reporting was not found across all local authorities interviewed, and in fact, there were common concerns expressed that council tax data was recorded in a way that was unhelpful for breaking down exemptions and identifying long-term empty homes. Two common examples were given of properties being recorded correctly as an unoccupied exemption due to the resident being in a care home, or where there was no grant of confirmation on estate. These categories could be used for a property that had been empty for years and caused significant problems with neighbours, for example. Thus, the unoccupied exemptions classification was an area that further information was felt to be needed to provide more accurate information and to make the EHOs investigation role much more efficient.

It was concluded by several stakeholders that there is a requirement for an in-depth review and system change of what is collected through CTR, with some calling for creation of an entirely alternative method for empty homes. A few also stated that there should be more investment by local authorities in developing bespoke systems for empty homes, and one other calling for a review of the approach in relation to data protection and empty homes so that from an operational perspective, engagement with empty homes owners could be more efficient. As highlighted above, this stakeholder argued for greater use of energy providers and other organisations aware of the various ‘triggers’ to highlight where empty homes may be.

Access to information

It was clear through the interviews that the relationship between local authority EHOs and Council Tax sections varied by area, and this would impact on the information that they were able to access. Some clearly had good relationships with the Council Tax department, with whom there was said to be a two-way process of mutual sharing and updating databases. For others there was fluctuating working relationships which impacted on access to data due to changes in personnel, with one example of waiting 18 months for an update. For some it was said they had to ‘fight for it [the data] and found it quite challenging to get’. As one participant stated:

“I think that's probably quite inconsistent for us all and not every local authority has an empty homes officer either. You know they wouldn’t be doing anything with that data.” (Urban/rural local authority)

As discussed above, even the local authorities who reported the productive working relationships with Council Tax colleagues received either monthly data exports or had ‘read only’ data access, rather than having an integrated data system.

Some respondents in empty homes teams also said that due to the lack of their own capacity, they were unable to make optimum use of the information that they were able to get from Council Tax.

“But there was an intention to try to spend a portion of time looking at that (Council Tax) report and extracting stuff to proactively pursue, but because it is just me and the caseload that we've amassed over the years with long running cases that you can't close off. You know, these complaints can be closed off anything from a week to 18 months and still be progressing at a reasonable rate. But some of them just persist and there are cases that X, when she was responsible for the pilot in 2015, were opened at the start of that project, that are still open now.” (City local authority)

“I have contacted Council Tax a couple of times and got spreadsheets from them but to be truthful, I haven’t had time to do much with that information to target the addresses that are on that. It’s mainly reactive at the moment – it is mainly Councillor enquiries from neighbours, contacts from Environmental Health and that sort of thing.” (Urban/rural local authority).

From the research it was clear that fundamentally, council tax and the data collected and held was used to determine who should pay council tax and at what level. It was not designed to capture detailed information on empty homes beyond that needed to apply the appropriate rate, and it was not intended or used by most as an empty homes monitoring tool. However, some local authorities had been able to maximise their access to the data, or negotiate a specific data exports. There were local authorities being provided with very detailed reports, including data on how long exemptions had been applied. This level of detail would be useful for targeting resources across Scotland, but due to lack of automation, a range of workarounds are required and generally there are lack of local authority resources available to commit to this task.

SEHP support on data analysis

SEHP provides a support role to local authorities in relation to data analysis, and the staff resource available for this has recently been increased through a new Data Analyst role funded by Scottish Government.

SEHP has undertaken small area data analysis for about a quarter to a third of local authorities so far. In many cases, the request for data analysis has come from the local authority themselves, to use data in a more strategic way. This was the case in Aberdeen, where insights on empty homes in the city centre have informed the development of the City Centre Masterplan. In Argyll and Bute analysis was used to consider the relationship between empty homes, second homes and holiday homes. In the Scottish Borders, analysis was undertaken to inform the work of an EHO to be appointed, while in North Ayrshire, analysis assisted a refocusing of activity on empty homes work. In other local authorities, SEHP has initiated data analysis where there was no EHO in place to demonstrate the need for an EHO.

The analyses undertaken use the NRS datazone level data to provide additional insights on long-term empty properties, second homes and underoccupied exemptions. Some, more detailed reports have considered analysis by council tax banding, single person discounts, age profile and population density, SIMD and rurality of the datazones where more empty homes are found. Some reports also consider the location of newbuild properties and demolition, compared with long-term empty properties.

Two examples are provided below of this data analysis work. These are examples of the extra insight that local area analysis can provide in helping local authorities to respond strategically to empty homes. It is noted in all the SEHP analysis that local knowledge is also needed to provide a fuller interpretation to determine action.

Insights for Aberdeen showed a considerably higher level of empty properties in the city centre, and a much higher proportion of second homes and higher rates of occupied exemptions (e.g. students, possible future demolitions). There had also been an increase in dwellings through new-build alongside a falling city centre population, with an increase in properties with single person discounts. However, the new dwellings may have slowed down due the decrease in population. Further research to look specifically at the council tax status of properties in the three data zones where there has been the largest increase in dwellings may shed further light on whether these properties are empty (possibly bought to leave empty, or bought to rent but not successfully rented), and/or whether these properties are occupied but have led to older properties becoming empty (for example, where new purpose built student accommodation has led to older traditional student accommodation being unoccupied).

In Argyll and Bute the detailed datazone analysis across the Islands found that in all but one datazone, higher levels of second homes correlated with higher levels of empty homes. It was noted that this may be the result of properties being out of reach for buyers financially or may be a reflection of property type and size being mismatched to the type of properties for which there is demand.

Analysis by property type by datazone found that: The highest levels of long-term empty homes correlated with the highest proportions of detached and semi-detached properties; High levels of second homes correlated with high levels of detached properties; Higher levels of terraces and/or flats generally correlated to lower levels of long-term empty properties and lower levels of second homes.

The analysis also presented data to suggest that an increased supply of smaller homes may have played a significant role in the increase in occupied properties and fall in long-term empties on the Islands.

Key findings summary

  • The total number of empty homes in Scotland estimated from council tax records across all categories has increased by 4% since 2008, but over the last decade the increase has slowed to 2%. Long-term empty homes (empty for more than 6 months) have risen steadily since 2008 from 22,784 to 42,865 in 2022. Over the last decade long-term empty properties over 6 months have increased by 68.4%, the number of second homes has reduced substantially by 40.2%, while unoccupied exemptions have increased slightly by 3.6%.
  • It is important to note that the relationship between the recording of the three groups of empty homes has changed over time. From 1st April 2013 local authorities gained the discretionary power to remove the empty properties discount or set a council tax increase of 100% on certain properties which have been empty for over 12 months.
  • The rate of long-term empty properties is equivalent to 1.6% of all dwellings in Scotland, although there is significant variation by local authority area, with large urban areas holding the greatest volume and a similar proportion to the overall Scotland rate, but rural areas have less volume but tend to have higher proportions of their dwellings that are long-term empty homes.
  • The Scottish rate of long-term empty homes is similar to that found in Wales, but higher than the English rate. However, accurate comparisons are challenging due to different categorisations and data collection methods, and different rates of council tax premium.
  • The local authority survey showed most local authorities were unable to provide information on empty homes property size and type, and condition of the properties. Furthermore, most are unable to provide an assessment of the empty homes condition, and what it would take to get the properties back into use.
  • There were differences identified in reporting and updating of the council tax data including how council tax exemptions and discretions were applied which varies by area, and how data is reported and kept up-to-date. The example of unoccupied exemptions was one area where local authorities called for more transparency in published data about the type of exemptions and the length of time an exemption had been applied, to make comparisons more valid.
  • There were a range of methods employed to identify and actively manage a case load of empty homes including those that started with the Council Tax Register and augmented this with additional property data, to those where the starting base was new empty homes data from complaints and other referrals. In some cases, there was no direct relationship to the empty homes data on the council tax database, other than being used as an initial verification of the empty home brought to their attention. However, empty homes were also absent from the council tax databases for various reasons.
  • The access that EHOs had to council tax data differed greatly, with some having direct access (read only) and others relying on data requests/exports on an ad-hoc basis, potentially made more difficult by bureaucracy and internal relationships. Some were constrained by inadequate levels of staff resource, who were unable to make use of the data they received. This means the scope to put additional demands on how empty homes data is collected and reported from the Council Tax Register is limited.
  • SEHP has been developing its support role to local authorities in relation to data analysis, using published data combined with other data sources. This provides valuable small area insights but must be combined with local knowledge to enable full interpretation for potential action.



Back to top