COUNCILS across the south have netted almost £5 million as a reward for building new homes.

New figures show how the New Homes Bonus, which is given to local authorities in return for planning permission for new residential homes, has been distributed.

They reveal that Southampton City Council was given £716,901, in return for 597 new homes. But the number of empty homes increased by 13 compared to last year, meaning the council missed out on an extra payment.

The bonus is the government's attempt to encourage council planners to accept new developments. But in areas like Hampshire, where there is acute pressure on open spaces from developers, it has been criticised as a "bribe" to cash-strapped councils. And the decision to pay more for larger homes means many are out-of-reach of desperate first-time buyers.

The bonus is the coalition government's replacement for the previous system of annual housing grants.

Councils are able to spend the cash on improving local services, such as building playgrounds or bus subsidies, or even on reducing council tax.

In total, new housing stock across Southampton, South Hampshire and the Isle of Wight increased by 3,825, including 258 empty homes that were brought back into use.

The latest grant brings the total award since the scheme began beyond £15 million.

As well as Southampton, the number of homes lying empty increased in New Forest by 38 but was reduced in the other areas.

Councils are paid an extra £350 for every new home that is classed as affordable. A total of 1,839 were created across the area, approximately half of the total.

In a statement to MPs, Housing Minister Mark Prisk said: "For years, developers found themselves at loggerheads with communities unconvinced that their plans for growth would benefit them. But the New Homes Bonus is turning this around.

"Local people are able to see the rewards of new developments in their area - paving the way for thousands of much-needed, locally-supported homes to be delivered across the country."