PEOPLE struggling to bring their empty homes back into use are being urged to get in touch with a not-for-profit company that lends public funds.

Across Devon more than 14,000 homes were vacant in 2022, amounting to 2.5 per cent of the county’s housing stock, according to the House Buyer Bureau.

Charity Crisis says not repurposing empty homes is a missed opportunity to tackle homelessness and the housing shortage, which are some of the biggest problems facing local authorities.

“Lendology” lends public money it receives from councils in the South West to allow homeowners to undertake essential repairs, adaptations, energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy projects.

Torridge District Council, Mid Devon, South Hams and West Devon, East Devon, North Devon, Teignbridge and Exeter have all invested in the scheme.

People can borrow from £500 to £20,000 or more and pay it back over a length of time that suits them at four per cent interest. £22 million has been lent since the company was formed in 2008.

It has helped homeowners who receive benefits, self-employed people and pensioners with limited or no disposable income. Individually tailored loans mean that some may pay interest only, with repayment once a property is sold.

Speaking to Torridge District Council’s external overview and scrutiny committee last week, operations manager Ellie Lister said information about the company would go out with council tax bills, and until now it had been the area’s “best kept secret”.

She said a lot of people are excluded from accessing finance because they don’t use digital technology or borrowing rates were too high. Lendology is available to all homeowners and landlords but doesn’t lend on second homes or holiday homes.

“It’s amazing what you see when you go into homes. Some have no electrics, no heating, toilets outside, roofs leaking, and there are people emptying buckets of water from their homes every day because of the condition of their roofs,” she said.

She said for every £1 invested by councils, it generated £2.38 in “social impact”. Lendology works with hospital discharge teams to make sure homes are safe and warm for people after a stay in hospital.

Some £755,000 has been loaned to Torridge residents; the majority to owner-occupiers, £36,000 to people with empty properties and £17,000 to private landlords.

Councillors said they needed to do more to promote Lendology to all residents, particularly those who have empty homes which could provide an affordable home for a local family.

Deputy leader of Torridge District Council, Claire Hodson (Ind, Westward Ho!), said it is “ a wonderful scheme”.

She continued: “We need to grab the bull by the horns because if people do not know about it we are still going to suffer from problems of poorly maintained homes.”

Devon has increasing numbers of people facing homelessness, and affordable homes to buy or rent are in short supply.

Homeless charity Shelter said a Freedom of Information request showed the number of people in temporary accommodation in England had risen by 74 per cent in the past 10 years.

Homelessness is most acute in Torridge, where one in 279 people is homeless.

Figures from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) revealed that the amount of empty homes in Torridge grew from 239 to 292 in the 12 months to October 2023.

DLUHC says councils can increase council tax by up to 300 per cent on long-term empty homes and take them over by compulsory purchase orders and empty dwelling management orders.

It says it has reduced the number of long-term empty homes by more than 50,000 since 2010 by giving councils power to bring them back into use.

Alison Stephenson