THE region is in the grip of a housing crisis with a big leap in the number of homeless families, new figures have revealed.

There are 89,747 households waiting for a council or housing association home, compared to 73,809 when Labour came to power in 1997 - a 22 per cent increase.

The worst-hit area is Sunderland, where the housing register has more than trebled in length, from 5,117 families to 16,222.

But there have also been big increases in Newcastle, up 191 per cent, Sedgefield, up 61 per cent, Middlesbrough, up 46 per cent, and Chester-le-Street, up 44 per cent.

The waiting list has also grown sharply in parts of North Yorkshire, including Richmondshire, up 120 per cent, Harrogate, up 77 per cent, and Ryedale, up 41 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats, who dug out the Government figures, blamed the crisis on a failure to build more affordable homes and the "scandal" of rundown houses lying empty.

Sarah Teather, the party's housing spokeswoman, said five social homes were sold off under the continuing 'right to buy' policy for every one home built.

She said: "Families shouldn't have to face years on the housing list just to get somewhere decent to live.

"With house prices so high that home ownership is just a dream for most people, more and more are turning to councils for help finding a home.

"But every year there are fewer affordable homes for the people who need them.

"We need to build more homes for rent and tackle the scandal of nearly 700,000 homes standing empty."

In its election manifesto, Labour pledged to build an extra 10,000 social homes a year by 2008, but critics have said that will fail to make up for years of failure.

Local authorities are effectively barred from building council homes, with only privately-run housing associations given Government funds.

However, the number of families on the waiting list has fallen in Redcar and Cleveland (down 46 per cent), Stockton (down 43 per cent) and Teesdale (down 38 per cent).

The Northern Echo revealed in the summer that nearly 13,000 private homes in the North-East had been vacant for more than six months.

From April next year, local authorities will be given new powers to move tenants into long-term empty homes without the costly - and often time-consuming - process of applying for a compulsory purchase.

They will be able to slap an empty dwelling management order (EDMO) on any landlord refusing to co-operate with attempts to bring a property back into use.