A mountain of unpaid council tax is owed to North authorities . . . amounting to a staggering £127million.
Despite many North councils facing severe financial hardship and axing hundreds of jobs, millions of pounds is still outstanding from those who have not paid their tax.
Concerns are growing that with so many people currently facing financial hardship, the current arrears situation will only get worse.
According to figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government, homes in Middlesbrough owed among the most on average, taking into account the number of households.
Calls were today made for a distinction to be made between those who are struggling to pay their tax – and those who deliberately avoid it.
Bosses at the region’s Citizen Advice bureaus say one in five people reporting debt problems to their service has a council tax arrears issue.
Figures show that between January and March this year, council tax debt was the number one debt problem the charity in the region helped with.
Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice chief executive, said: “For some households council tax bills can be the tipping point that plunges them into debt.”
Council bosses today said they are chasing the outstanding cash while at the same time offering support to those struggling to pay their bills. A Newcastle City Council spokesman said: “The amount outstanding that is owed to us is currently £12.2m – but these debts are more than a year old and in many cases go back as far as six years, and we have arrangements in place to collect some of this debt. We pursue people who refuse to pay these charges vigorously and only stop when it becomes uneconomical to do so.
“We have a statutory duty to collect council tax and business rates which are spent on vital services such as social care. Our collection rates are currently the highest of any core city and even higher than those of many smaller sized local authorities.
“Those who get into difficulties paying their charges should contact us as soon as possible so we can make alternative arrangements to help them pay and offer them advice.
“We also work very closely with the Citizens Advice Bureau and other voluntary sector organisations so those in genuine difficulties can get the help they need – but informing us of problems at the earliest opportunity is probably the most important thing a person can do and we actively encourage this.”
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Councils need to be clear why they fail to collect so much in council tax, but it’s hardly surprising that some residents struggle to pay after a decade of hikes.
“Town halls need to differentiate between those who simply try to avoid paying and those who can’t afford to when dealing with cases. The latter should be helped with easier ways to pay, like Direct Debit, while the former should be pursued for outstanding bills.”
> Oh great – Direct Debit is not an easier way to pay if you’ve not the money to start with. But I suppose the kind of advice you’d get from a think-tank founded by a group of libertarian Conservatives.
Bosses at North Tyneside Council say their total arrears figure is “constantly shifting”, although as of the end of March this year it stood at £10.7million.
A spokesperson added: “The council’s overall collection rate for council tax, including arrears, is 99.2 per cent. We have prompt and effective collection strategies in place and balance this with support and assistance for those who may have difficulties in making payments.”
Stockton has arrears of more than £5m according to the figures.
David Harrington, Stockton’s cabinet member for corporate management and finance said: “We collected more than 98 per cent of all council tax in 2012/13 and in 2013/14, collected 96.9 per cent, which is still well above similar authorities.”
John Jopling, Gateshead Council service director for Customer and Financial Services said his authority’s charges for the year 2013-14, are still being collected.
He added: “It’s important to note that over the past two years there have been some significant changes to levels of council tax that is due to be paid. In Gateshead the level of support available for those on low incomes has been reduced, with some of the lowest income families now having to make a minimum 8.5 per cent contribution.
“This is as a result of the Government’s abolition of council tax benefit. Additionally, the council has also made changes to the levels of discount available on empty properties and second homes which have reduced exemption periods and charged premiums on long term empties.
“The effect of these changes is an increase in the amount of council tax due to be collected, which has increased by £4.3m or 5.5 per cent.”
A South Tyneside Council spokesman said: “We do all we can to maximise council tax collection rates, though recovery can take time and in some cases we are not able to recover the council tax debt in the financial year in which it is due. We currently collect around 98 per cent of overall debt.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 13 July 2014
Another £20m of cuts will see councils end their historic “paternal provider” role, a chief executive has admitted.
North Tyneside Council’s most senior official, Patrick Melia, has said the nature of local authorities will change to one that “steps in when people fall”.
The council needs to reduce its spending by 2018 by around £20m, and is now preparing to set out three years worth of spending plans as it looks at the next budget rounds.
Mr Melia said that if his £150m budget is “spent wisely we can still do a lot of good with it”.
Alongside that cash comes health spending, and money for schools, homes and building work which will still see some half a billion pounds spent in the borough, something the chief executive says is “a cause for optimism”.
The council official said that while he cannot rule out job losses at the council over the next three years, he could point to a strong record at the council of avoiding compulsory redundancies, and was hopeful to make the process as painless as possible.
He said: “Local government in the North East has been paternalistic. We have always wanted to care for people, with the recession we have had and the way things are we now have to help people to do these things for themselves, but to be there to catch people if they do it for themselves.
“We will be moving away from being a paternalistic provider of services to one that enables people to look after themselves, and reduce demand for services as a result.”
Mr Melia added: “We are working now on a plan that sees us think three years ahead. If our share of local spending is £150m by then how best do we spend that money?
“It means we have to redesign how we deliver services here.
“I think one thing we need to think about as part of that is we often talk of hard to reach people, but it is the council that can be hard to reach for some people.
“I mean the council knows where people live, but some people will just not come through the door of an official council building, so changing how we provide those services is something we will look at.”
Alongside that will come a continued focus on regeneration, with work continuing on the likes of the A19 Silverlink improvements, the redevelopment of Wallsend town centre and the various projects around Whitley Bay and the coast.
“We need to help businesses as much as people, to get people with the right skills to be where they are needed,” Mr Melia added.
Source – Newcastle Journal 16April 2014
A teenage UKIP campaigner has been reprimanded for sharing his political views while standing as a youth councillor.
Joshua Gilroy, 16, has been told by North Tyneside Council officials that he cannot promote the right-wing political party while sitting on their young persons’ forum.
Yet the farming student claims his political views are a private matter and have never impaired his ability to be neutral when representing residents in the borough.
The row broke out after the Northumberland College pupil printed a statement in the party’s newsletter alongside a picture of himself asking for people to join UKIP’s youth wing. A spokesperson for North Tyneside Council said that in his piece he deliberately described himself as a “youth councillor and cabinet member” which triggered an investigation into the future of his position with the youth team.
A spokesperson for North Tyneside Council said: “Youth councillors are bound by a code of conduct and make a commitment to be politically neutral in their role.
“We recognise in their private lives they may wish to support or belong to a political party, however, in their position as a youth councillor they must not combine the two, and on this occasion the youth councillor did with his statement in a political leaflet.”
However, Joshua claims he has never been asked to sign anything relating to political neutrality and believes North Tyneside Council’s Labour administration is fearful of UKIP’s increasing popularity.
He said their neutrality guidelines should also be called into question considering youth council members are currently being asked to consider issues such as lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.
Joshua, from Camperdown near Newcastle, said: “I’m endorsing UKIP but it’s got nothing to do with the council – this is to do with my personal life. I’ve said what my title is in the newsletter but I’m not using it as propaganda.
“This is supposed to be about giving young people a say in the local council and now I feel that this isn’t the case.”
Joshua, who studies animal management and hopes to become a dairy farmer, joined UKIP in November 2013 alongside his mum and stepfather when all three decided to make a switch from Labour.
> Joshua, who studies animal management and hopes to become a dairy farmer – who would then no doubt be very happy to pocket his share of the European Union subsidies paid to farmers…
A spokesperson from the council added: “In the first instance, the youth councillor is issued with a reminder that as a youth councillor they must not use their role to promote a political party.”
Source – Newcastle Journal 05 April 2014
A new super council will be formed on April 1, allowing the North East to compete for millions of pounds in Government funding.
After months of internal rows and territorial battles, the North East’s seven council leaders have secured Government backing to form a Combined Authority.
The move means, for example, that decisions over major transport and jobs investment in Northumberland or Newcastle must be made only after the views of the other council leaders have been taken into account.
There will be no changes to local councils, with voters still electing their local councillor and the same group collecting bins and looking after those in care.
> But we won’t get to vote in matters directly involving this super council ?
But behind the scenes the North East Combined Authority will be seen as the lead voice for the region in Whitehall.
The seven leaders, and their chief executives, will share decision making over skills, transport and investment, have the chance to secure control over any devolved Government budgets and a say in how the region bids for the £2bn Government Growth Fund.
> And no doubt they’ll also share an extra wad in their pay packets.
Cities minister Mr Clark has told MPs he thinks it is “a huge advance in the North East” and called for council leaders, MPs and other jobs groups to come together to formally discuss with him the next steps for the region.
> And will we – those most affected by any decisions – have any input ?
Former regional minister Nick Brown recently secured a series of regular meetings with the cities minister amid concerns the region’s case was not being heard in parliament.
Last night he told The Journal: “If we want access to the money we have to comply with the Government’s preferred structures, and it is very important that members of parliament are involved and can represent their constituents.”
The combined authority sees Durham County Council, Gateshead Council, Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council, South Tyneside Council, Northumberland County Council and Sunderland City Council form a legally binding structure with the power to borrow cash and the responsibility to share risk.
Simon Henig, the Durham council leader set to chair the combined authority, said: “Working together is the best way to promote jobs and growth and to secure devolution of funding, powers and responsibilities from Government.
“We share ambitious plans for the future of our area and we are determined to work together to deliver them.
“We are therefore delighted to receive today’s news from Cabinet Office and look forward to the necessary formalities being progressed so that we can launch on April 1 this year. This is an important and exciting moment in our history and we are ready now to deliver on our ambitious plans.”
Hopes of forming a combined authority had appeared slim earlier this year when Sunderland Council had halted the process amid concerns that Newcastle would hold too much influence.
Ministers, civil servants and council officials put pressure on Sunderland to drop its objections, but it was only once leader Paul Watson secured a stronger negotiating hand on the leaders’ board that it could go ahead.
There were then further delays when Sunderland decided to hold out for a multi-million pound investment package from the Government for Wearside before going ahead.
This Sunderland City Deal, set to see some £50m spent on a new business park based around Nissan, is now in the final stage of negotiations.
> So it’s all decided, signed, sealed and delivered. You had no input, it doesn’t appear you’ll ever get the chance for meaningful input… but then, this is all about the really important people, like councillors and businessmen. Business as usual, in fact.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 06 March 2014
People looking for work have had their benefits stopped to meet government targets, the PCS union claims.
The union, which represents many job centre staff, said they had been under “enormous pressure” to stop claimants’ Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Some claimants said they had benefits withdrawn for “genuine mistakes” such as missing appointments.
The government says sanctions are a “last resort”, and strongly denies the union’s claim.
“Job centre staff are under enormous pressure to implement sanctions on unemployed people,” PCS union north-east regional secretary Simon Elliot said.
> Some of them. Others seem to revel in that little bit of power, and dont require any pressure whatsoever…
“Staff are faced with the threat of sanctions themselves in the form of what they call performance improvement plans if they don’t impose sanctions.
“If you look at the guidance for implementing the performance improvement plans it clearly states that it’s a measure against targets.”
David Taws from North Tyneside had his benefit suspended for forgetting an appointment.
He phoned to apologise but was told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would need to be informed.
“The letter turned up on the 20th of December and I was literally sanctioned over Christmas,” he said. “It was horrific – I had to go literally begging for food at a church hall.”
Another man, who did not wish to be named, said his benefit was cut for a month in September.
“I explained that I was caring for my nana,” he said. “I was up and down to the hospital with her. It totally slipped my mind. I phoned up and said I’m half an hour late for my appointment and they said, ‘OK, we’ll just put it as a miss’.
“I got a letter two weeks later saying I was sanctioned – for 28 days.”
Mr Elliot said staff were being forced to carry out “politically motivated” objectives.
> Forced ? You’re a bloody trade union, man ! You should be in there fighting.
The DWP strongly denied there were any targets for the number of sanctions that Job Centre staff must hand out. It also said there was a right of appeal.
North Tyneside Council Conservative group leader Judith Wallace defended the use of sanctions to “stamp out the something-for-nothing culture”.
She said: “If people are unemployed, and looking for work, clearly it is right that they should get benefits but, equally clearly, it’s right that there should be conditions attached to those benefits.”
> Yes ? And haven’t there always been conditions attached ? It’s just that they’ve never been used as a political weapon in such a cynical way before. And for all sanctions have increased massively, lets not forget that unemployment continues to rise in the North East.
And where are our local Labour MPs in all this ? Or any other local political party outside the coalition ?
- The new regime came into force in October 2012
- Sanctions of between four weeks and three years can be imposed
- More than 400,000 in England, Scotland and Wales had Jobseeker’s Allowance stopped in the first nine months of the new system
- In Northumberland and Tyne and Wear the figure was almost 17,500 for the same period
- In Durham and Tees Valley it was nearly 16,000
- It was more than 20,000 in Cumbria and Lancashire
Source – BBC News Tyne & Wear, 24 Jan 2014