More than 37,000 homes in Scotland have been left vacant for six months or longer in the past year, according to the latest official statistics.
Scottish Government figures show 19 of the country’s 32 local authorities reported a higher number of long-term empty dwellings than last year.
As of September 2017, there were 1410 more homes left long-term vacant across Scotland than in 2016 – an increase of around 4% on 2016.
Homes are categorised as long-term vacant if they have been empty for at least six months.
These figures do not include second homes or properties with unoccupied exemptions for council tax.
Scottish Labour has said it “can’t be right that there are tens of thousands of homes lying empty” when so many people in Scotland are sleeping rough and has called on the government to do more.
There were about 34,000 homeless applications in Scotland between April 2016 and March 2017.
Ministers point to a scheme funded by the Scottish Government and hosted by homelessness charity Shelter Scotland that has brought almost 3000 privately-owned long-term empty homes back into use since 2010.
Over the past decade the number of homes considered long-term vacant in Scotland has risen sharply by more than 80%, from 20,328 in 2007 to 37,135 this year.
This year is the eighth in the last decade when the overall figure has increased rather than fallen.
Typical reasons why properties might be left empty for six months or more include necessary repairs being stalled for financial or other reasons and locations being seen as rundown or undesirable.
In some cases, homeowners hold on to properties without using them in the hope of selling them off later at a higher price, in a phenomenon known as buy to leave.
In 2010, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) was launched, run by Shelter Scotland with government funding, in a bid to bring more empty homes back into use.
The project says it has brought around 2840 formerly vacant privately owned homes back into use over the past seven years, a combined estimated value of £425m.
The Scottish Government has committed to doubling the scheme’s funding to more than £400,000 as part of its overarching housing strategy.
Ministers also said councils were given the power in 2013 to charge a levy of up to 100% on top of council tax to discourage homeowners from leaving properties empty.
The SEHP attributes this year’s rise in long-term empty homes – after a slight reduction in 2016 – to “better data gathering by local authorities” as well as to the reclassification of second homes.
Nine Scottish councils recorded their highest number of long-term vacant dwellings in a decade in 2017, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Less densely populated parts of the country, such as islands and rural areas, tended to have a greater number of empty homes per head.
The Shetland Islands had the most, with 22 long-term empty homes per 1000 of population, followed by the Western Isles on 19, Argyll and Bute and the Orkney Islands on 14 and the Scottish Borders on 12.
The city with the highest number of vacant dwellings by population is Aberdeen, with 11 homes empty for at least six months for every 1000 residents.
Dundee is the council area with the highest concentration of long-term empty homes, with 23 per square kilometre, followed by Edinburgh at 19, Glasgow at 16.3 and Aberdeen at 14.
Scottish Labour housing spokeswoman Pauline McNeill said: “When we have a huge number of people sleeping on the streets, and particularly during this harsh winter, it can’t be right that there are tens of thousands of homes lying empty.
“The Scottish Government must look at innovative schemes, some of which have been conducted by local authorities, for reducing the number of unoccupied homes.”
Housing minister Kevin Stewart conceded the number of homes being left vacant in Scotland was “too many”.
He said: “Official statistics show that there are currently 37,000 long-term empty homes in Scotland.
“However, we agree that this is still too many and have committed to double the funding for the SEHP to more than £400,000.”
Stewart added: “We also gave local authorities powers in 2013 to charge a levy of up to 100% on top of council tax to discourage owners from leaving homes empty.”
The SEHP says it offers a range of assistance to owners of empty homes, whether they want to move into their property, sell it or let it out.
SEHP national manager Shaheena Din said: “The apparent rise in long-term privately owned empty properties is linked to better data gathering by local authorities and is also linked to the reclassification of second homes.
“So far the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, working with a network of 21 empty homes officers it has built up within Scottish local authorities, has helped bring 2841 homes back into use with an estimated market value of £425m.”
She added: “It simply doesn’t make sense for people to leave a property sitting empty when it could be bringing in money for them and providing a home for someone who needs one.
“There is a lot of help available – via the SEHP – to make it possible for people to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of moving back into a property, letting it out or selling it.”