THE war on empty homes in Southampton – blamed for blight and a housing shortage – is slowly being won, new figures suggest.

After many years of increases, the number of vacant properties across the city fell by more than 600 last year, to 2,695 – a fall of 18.4 per cent.

And there is also encouraging progress in tackling long-termempty homes – those without occupants for more than six months – which cause the greatest concern.

In Southampton, that total dropped by almost 200 in 2013, to 639, and is little more than 60 per cent of the figure back in 2006, when it stood at 1,046.

Across Hampshire, new occupants were found for 1,197 empty homes over 12 months, of which 896 were vacant for more than six months.

On long-term vacancies, there was also progress in Fareham (down from 213 to 168), in New Forest (from 683 to 425), in Test Valley (from 331 to 193) and in Winchester (from 408 to 361).

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles was quick to claim the credit for the improvement, which mirrored an impressive fall in empty homes across England.

The Conservative pointed to a £235m scheme to revamp properties and new powers to force absent owners to continue paying council tax, as a deterrent.

Councils have also been given new powers to force the owners of empty homes to pay council tax after one month, instead of giving them six months’ grace.

Mr Pickles said: “I’m pleased to see that the efforts we’ve made to bring these homes back into use have helped bring the numbers down to a ten-year low.”

The latest statistics, published by the department of communities and local government, cover the 12 months between October 2012 and October 2013.

Among the few blots on the figures were increases in the total number of empty homes in Winchester (up from 1,222 to 1,268) and the Isle of Wight (from 2,534 to 2,571).

A spokesman for Southampton City Council said its approach was to offer help and advice, backed up by the threat of enforcement action where properties were falling into “significant disrepair”.

He said: “We work with private property owners to bring empty properties in the city back into use.

On average, this approach directly results in an extra 100 homes being used by our city’s residents each year.”