As some of you will no doubt be aware, last week was National Empty Homes week. It managed to garner a lot more attention than normal thanks to a week of action from the Empty Homes Agency, who worked together with Channel 4 presenter George Clarke on a series of programmes that focussed on tackling the housing crisis, and in particular on empty homes.

George’s campaign is a welcome one, and comes at an important time. I regularly describe the number of empty homes we have in the UK as a national scandal. We have enough long-term vacant properties to build a city the size of Sheffield and still have thousands left over. Housing waiting lists soared under Labour, and millions of families are waiting to get a home of their own. The solution to this problem is not only to build more homes, but to ensure that we’re using the ones that we have already as well.

Liberal Democrats realised this long ago. At the 2010 General Election, we were the only party that had a clear and credible plan for tackling empty homes in our manifesto. Ensuring that the government had the policies in place to really get to grips with this problem has been one of my top priorities in the Coalition.

The only measure of note to have been introduced under Labour to deal with empty homes were Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs), which allowed Local Authorities to take over the management of long term empty properties. Though a useful stick to encourage landlords to bring these properties back into use, as of November 2010, only 40 had been implemented. It was clear to me that we needed new incentives and extra funding to really get on top of the problem.

The first way we’ve done that is through the New Homes Bonus. I pushed hard within government to ensure that empty homes brought back into use would be eligible for reward through this scheme. We’ve just announced the allocations for year two of the scheme, which included a payout of £19 million to councils for bringing empty homes back into use. Feedback from the ground suggests that councils are now thinking a lot harder about what they can do to bring empties back into use. Lib Dem-run Bristol, for example recently announced plans to bring back 400 empty homes a year.

We’re also consulting on changes to council tax that will help matters considerably. We’re proposing to scrap the mandatory six month discount, replacing it instead with a flexibility to offer a discount of between 0% and 100% – allowing councils to charge full council tax if they want to. There will still be some exemptions in place – such as in the event of the death of the owner, or if the owner has moved to give or receive personal care – but councils will be given much more freedom to manage their housing stock, and remove the incentive to keep homes empty. Further still, the Coalition is pursuing the Lib Dem policy of an Empty Homes Premium that would give councils the option to charge up to an extra 50% on council tax on any home that has been empty for two years or more. This will provide an extra weapon in a council’s armoury, and will act as an additional spur to landlords to bring their homes back into use. The consultation on these changes to council tax is still open, and I would strongly urge Liberal Democrats everywhere to support these measures.

But we recognise it’s not just about tools and incentives, cash needs to be available as well. That’s why I secured a £100m Empty Homes Fund as part of the CSR statement, designed to bring thousands of empty homes back into use as social housing, with Councils and Community Groups able to bid for a share of the money to get things going. In the Autumn Statement, we also secured a further £50m of funding to tackle areas where there are high concentrations of empty homes in a neighbourhood. Many of these concentrations are in the North, a legacy of the failed regeneration projects that Labour pursued. Our intention is that we will work with local partners to secure match funding for this money, and I will be announcing more details of how the funds can be accessed in the New Year.

So we’ve done quite a lot to provide incentives, support and extra funding to bring empty homes back into use. But the crucial test is – will it work? Early indications show our policies are having a good effect. Last Thursday, on a visit with Ian Swales to an empty home in Redcar that has recently been brought back into use, I announced the latest official figures for empty homes in England. They’re going in the right direction, with 21,000 fewer long term empty properties than twelve months ago. That leaves us with a total of 279,000 long term empties, a seven-year low. That’s still too many. But with campaigns like George Clarke’s raising awareness of the problem, and the extra money and incentives from government to help make it happen, I’m confident that we will see even more progress in the years to come.

Andrew Stunell is the Lib Dem Communities Minister, with Responsibility for Empty Homes policy.