Councils are deliberately leaving local authority houses vacant for long periods to qualify for particular Department of Housing funding schemes, a local authority watchdog has claimed.

The National Oversight and Audit Commission said it appeared local authorities were waiting to obtain finance from central government programmes rather than use their own resources to refurbish vacant homes.

The warning comes as a new report by the commission revealed that 2,250 out of 4,202 local authority housing units that were empty at the end of 2015 had been vacant for over a year.

“It is hard not to conclude the existing funding schemes can end up having a perverse impact on available supply,” the commission said.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday that €24m is being provided to return 1,400 vacant social housing units to productive use this year with up to €30,000 available per unit.

The watchdog, which examined how councils manage and maintain local authority housing, said it was very important that they minimised their re-letting times “particularly in the context of the current shortage of housing for waiting list applicants.”

It noted that several councils said long-term vacant units in need of refurbishment were only being brought up to a suitable standard for letting when funding was allocated by the Department of Housing.

“The fact that so many of the vacancies are of such a long duration gives credence to the view that some dwellings are deliberately being left vacant for long periods so as to qualify for particular funding schemes rather than use up the authority’s internal capital receipts to finance necessary refurbishment work,” said the commission.

The average time between a property becoming vacant and being re-let ranged from seven weeks in Laois County Council to 83 weeks in Cork City Council. The average amount spent on preparing a unit for re-letting ranged from €1,267 in Cavan to €35,013 in Cork City.

The commission recommended the basis of funding for the renovation of vacant properties needed to be reviewed “so as to avoid any ‘incentive’ to delay the return of a dwelling to use.”

It also urged councils to use choice-based lettings where individuals on housing waiting lists could express an interest in properties advertised for letting with the unit allocated to the highest-placed interested applicant. “A benefit of that approach is it would quickly become apparent if dwellings exist for which there is absolutely no demand and that could be disposed of to release resources for accommodation in areas of high demand,” it said.

The commission expressed concern that many tenants were not notifying their local authority in advance of moving. Ten councils said they received no advance notice in over 50% of cases.

The report found 61% of the local authority housing stock of over 130,600 homes was over 20 years old.

It was “unsatisfactory” that less than half of the country’s 31 councils had carried out a survey on the condition of their housing stock with only five local authorities conducting such work on a regular basis.

The report also highlighted wildly varying differences between councils on the number of staff assigned to the management of the housing stock. It ranged from one official for every 66 housing units in Dublin City Council to one for every 1,197 homes in Galway Co Council. Almost one in five employees in Galway City Council work in the housing department.

The report revealed that 25 excluding orders and 37 notices to quit were issued to troublesome tenants in 2014.

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