A father has accused a local authority of “demanding money with menaces” after his daughter was unexpectedly hit with a council tax demand and given seven days to pay – or face court action.
Alan Thompson’s daughter Naomi was left in tears after receiving the letter from Stockton Borough Council.
At the time the single working mother, who receives housing benefit as she is on a low income, was in the process of having her claim re-assessed by the council due to a change of circumstances.
The 34-year-old was told to pay three separate sums totalling £474.72 with the council claiming she had been overpaid going back to December 2011. Panicking as she could not afford it, the money was paid by Mr Thompson on his debit card.
However after an investigation the council later determined Ms Thompson in fact only owed £23 and the rest of the money was refunded.
During her correspondence with the council Ms Thompson, of Elmwood Road, Eaglescliffe, received a letter containing 29 pages of calculations which her father, a former bank manager, said left them both flummoxed.
Mr Thompson, who lives in Middleton-in-Teesdale, was prompted to contact The Northern Echo to explain the situation his daughter had faced after reading a recent report about councils’ increasing use of bailiffs to chase council tax debts.
“At the time her account was under assessment so we assumed there was no case to answer until it had been verified what she did owe.
“One of the amounts demanded we did not even know about and when we asked for information on it they could not give us it.
“The staff I met also admitted they did not understand the system they were working with. There are some serious discrepancies here and I suspect lots of people may be getting a raw deal.”
Under the legislation governing council tax collection when a bill is issued in respect of a previous financial year, payment is due in full, rather than in instalments, and the recovery process can move straight to a final notice without the requirement to issue a reminder first.
Mrs Thompson said:
“I have no faith in Stockton Council, but these kind of errors seem to be happening all over.
“Fortunately I am in a situation where I have got people I can turn to, but a lot of people don’t, or they will just pay the money no questions asked.”
A Stockton Council spokesman said:
“Our collection policy is designed to be fair and consistent.
“People’s specific circumstances are also taken into account when details are provided to us.”
Source – Northern Echo, 13 Apr 2015
A leading Stockton councillor has thrown his hat into the ring at the last minute to contest the Stockton South seat at the General Election.
Steve Walmsley, leader of the Thornaby Independent Association (TIA), is running as candidate for the Party of Dissent.
Cllr Walmsley describes the newly registered party as “a party of independents against social injustice and savage austerity cuts”.
The former Labour councillor split from the party back in 2003 “because of disillusion with politics without conscience and having to tow the party line no matter what”, and set up the TIA with friends.
He said he didn’t take the decision to stand in the May election “lightly”.
“What really swayed me was the fact that mainstream parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal, say much and offer little apart from a continuation of austerity which has brought misery to so many of the most vulnerable,” he said.
“And so this election should be about people making a choice about what kind of society they want to live in.
“If they want an uncaring, dog eat dog society where the poor, helpless and outsiders are stigmatised and blamed for economic meltdown whilst the greedy culprits continue to live in the lap of luxury, then they should vote for more of the same with any of the aforementioned parties.”
Cllr Walmsley believes Parliament should be “nationalised in the sense that those the public elect should work exclusively for the general public”.
He also believes that councils should be “localised, released from the stranglehold of political parties and handed back to the people who pay the bills and who ultimately bear the brunt of political folly and indifference”.
Immigration should also be “seriously and sensibly” tackled, he said.
Source – Middlesbrough Gazette, 13 Apr 2015
A shocking gap between the life expectancy of men and women in Stockton is being investigated by health chiefs.
It comes after a stark report last week revealed Stockton Borough now has the greatest inequality in male life expectancy in the country – and the gap has widened in recent years.
Though life expectancy is increasing as a whole, the gap between the most deprived and most affluent wards in the borough is increasing.
A man can now expect to live 16.4 years less in Stockton town centre – the most deprived ward in the borough – compared to a man in Eaglescliffe, among the most affluent areas.
But the gap for women is considerably less at 11 years.
Councillor Steve Nelson Stockton Council’s Cabinet member for housing and community safety, said:
“It’s not happening with women.
“Do we understand why men and women are so different?”
Peter Kelly, director of Public Health for Stockton and the author of the public health annual report for 2013/14, told a cabinet meeting that “it is very unusual there is such a gap”.
“With regard to women, we need to understand why the same hasn’t happened there – is it heart disease? Is it cancer?
“That’s a separate issue we are investigating.”
As reported, Mr Kelly’s health study revealed the life expectancy of men living in the poorest parts of Stockton has barely improved since the 1930s.
In stark contrast, life expectancy in areas like Eaglescliffe is as good as in the most affluent parts of the country.
Councillor Jim Beall, deputy leader of the council, said:
“We can dwell on that and say ‘shock, horror’, but on an average people are living longer in the borough.
“It is quite shocking information, it’s what we’re going to do about it that is the important question.
“We do something everywhere, but we do more where there’s more need.”
Council leader Councillor Bob Cook said:
“We have got a diverse borough – the worst wards are in the top 10% nationally, the affluent wards at the other end.
“It does show we have done quite a lot of work to bridge that gap, but quite a bit of work is needed to make sure deprived wards catch up.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 16 Feb 2015
A major new campaign has been launched to hit back against any negative portrayal of Stockton from the controversial show Benefits Street.
The Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign is a light-hearted response to what is expected to be a less than flattering portrayal of the borough when the Channel 4 series airs next year.
And people across the borough and beyond are being encouraged to show their love for Stockton by sharing photographs, videos and stories.
A new website – http://www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk – and social media accounts have been set up to kick-start the campaign.
The decision to film the second series of Benefits Street in Stockton caused widespread outrage, with some accusing Channel 4 of using “poverty tourism” to chase ratings.
The first series made stars of some of its cast but was described by critics as “poverty porn”.
After the story broke , Middlesbrough FC fans at the Riverside Stadium unveiled a banner reading “Being poor is not entertainment”.
But despite the fierce local and national criticism of the show, Channel 4 chief executive Ralph Lee said the broadcaster’s output would not be “censored”.
He defended the channel’s right “to tell the stories of some of the distressed parts of our society”.
Leader of Stockton Council, Councillor Bob Cook said:
“We did everything in our power to persuade the producers of Benefits Street to turn their attentions elsewhere. Sadly, you can’t win them all.
“What became clear, though, was that lots of people agreed with us that this is not a good thing for the borough.
“So, we’ve decided to focus our energies on turning a negative into a positive. We’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to respond to a series like Benefits Street is to celebrate, with good humour and quiet confidence, all that is great about our fine borough.”
The campaign will give people the opportunity to share their views on what they love about Stockton.
The council will support the campaign, but now want to “hand it over the public”, said Cllr Cook.
“This is a borough-wide campaign for the whole of Stockton-on-Tees. We’re delighted that our local media – The Gazette, Northern Echo and BBC Tees – are in agreement with us and have agreed to unite in their support of us.
“Whether you’re from Stockton, Billingham, Yarm, Eaglescliffe, Thornaby, Norton or Ingleby Barwick, we’d love you to get involved.”
Benefits Street is expected to be aired in March 2015 and the Positively Stockton campaign – also known as “Psst…” – features a major event that same month.
Billed as The Loudest Whisper, the event on Friday, March 13, will see a whispered message passed around the borough – starting and ending in Kingston Road – where the series is being filmed.
The message will be passed from person to person using human chains as well as all kinds of transport, from horses and rowing boats to buses and bikes.
The event, which will also raise money for Comic Relief, is being organised by Wildcats of Kilkenny frontman and proud Stocktonian Mike McGrother.
“There has been an assumption from the producers of Benefits Street that we’re a community that needs to be given a voice,” he said.
“To present this as ‘factual’ television designed to engineer some kind of social benefit is a bit arrogant I think.
“There’s an abundance of community pride in Stockton – it’s just not our style to go shouting it from the rooftops. But if we’re faced with a series that seeks to paint us in an unfair light on national television, we shouldn’t take that lying down.
“Through the Loudest Whisper event and the Positively Stockton campaign, we can dispel the myths that will inevitably be trotted out using the sense of humour, community spirit and understated manner people in our borough are renowned for.
“And it’s all for Comic Relief. Our voices, though quiet, will be heard!”
The new campaign also has the support of Stockton’s MPs.
Alex Cunningham, Labour, in whose Stockton North constituency Benefits Street is being filmed, said:
“There is much for us to be positive about our borough from the talent and resilience of our people to the powerhouse of the local council and other organisations doing their best in difficult circumstances to create jobs, improve our town centres and make life better for us all.
“It is tremendous that our community is reacting in such a positive way.
“Doubtless Channel 4 will claim our campaign would never have happened but for their unwelcome intrusion into our community, but they will be wrong again – there have been many positive initiatives over the years promoting our success, which is perhaps why the borough is seeing its population grow and why it was voted one of the best places in the country to do business.”
James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, said:
“If you look around you in Stockton you see things getting better – more jobs, more investment, a town and community proud of its past and looking to its future.
“We need to talk up what makes us great and this campaign is a brilliant addition to that. Benefits Street will show what they want, we will show the truth and talk up Teesside.”
To find out more about the Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign, and how to get involved, visit: www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 28 Nov 2014
Councils in the region have agreed to allow the public to film their meetings after the Government ordered local authorities to improve access to voters.
A survey by The Northern Echo revealed that councils across the North-East and North Yorkshire have approved the filming of committee meetings.
Members of the public are also usually allowed to post updates on meetings on social networking sites from council chambers.
Earlier this year, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles published a guide for people explaining how they could attend and report on their local council meetings.
The guidance explicitly stated that councils should permit the public to film council meetings.
Despite councils elsewhere in the country still refusing to allow filming, local authorities in this region appear to be complying with the guide.
Several councils have allowed filming for several months while others are currently in the process of changing their procedures to comply with the Government guidance.
Durham County Council agreed in July on a protocol for members of the public wishing to record meetings.
These regulations came into force on August 6.
Although it did not have a specific policy on the issue, Darlington Borough Council said it also allowed its meetings to be filmed.
Its guidance on the issue states: “The council is committed to being open and transparent in the way it conducts its decision making.
“Filming, recording and photography at council meetings will therefore be allowed subject to certain restrictions and conditions.”
A draft protocol regarding this issue will be considered by Stockton Council’s cabinet on September 4 and by full council on September 17.
Sunderland City Council also allows its meetings to be videoed.
“Dozens of meetings open to the public are held every year and the city council has always welcomed people to them,” said leader councillor Paul Watson.
Several councils noted that filming was allowed, but the chair of the meeting must be notified in advance.
Authorities also asked for filming to be done overtly, rather than done in secret, and not in a way that was disruptive.
Source – Northern Echo, 20 Aug 2014
A Stockton landlord must pay almost £1,000 after leaving his tenant without heating last winter.
Vivender Nath Blaggan left the house in Northcote Street, in Stockton, with a faulty boiler for three months during the coldest part of the year.
The 47-year-old, of Grange Road, in Stockton, pleaded guilty to failing to comply with an abatement notice issued under section 80 the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and was fined £350, ordered to pay costs of £609.17 and a victim surcharge of £35.
The tenant contacted Stockton Council in January 2014 after repeatedly asking Mr Blaggan to arrange for its repair, when the heating failed in November 2013.
The council’s private sector housing team carried out an inspection at the property which confirmed there was a problem with the gas boiler.
The council served a notice served under Section 80 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which gave Mr Blaggan a chance to carry out the necessary repairs.
However he failed to comply with the notice so the boiler was repaired by the council and legal action was taken, Teesside Magistrates’ Court heard.
In mitigation Mr Blaggan said that he had put temporary measures in place and provided the tenant with a fan heater and offered to pay for the extra electricity it would cost to run it.
He also said that he had arranged for repairs to be carried out but that they only lasted one week.
He had been advised he could obtain a free replacement boiler, but unfortunately the funding had been withdrawn before that could be arranged.
Stockton Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing and Community Safety, Councillor Steve Nelson said: “We are serious about tackling the problem of poor housing conditions in the private rented sector and we take the health and safety of private tenants very seriously, where conditions are not met then action will be taken.
“We hope that this case will send a clear message to private landlords that they have a responsibility to ensure their properties meet the necessary standards and failure to do so will not be tolerated.”
Stockton Council works with private sector landlords to help maintain and improve properties and operates a Landlord Accreditation Scheme which offers advice and assistance.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 29 July 2014
Middlesbrough Council has the highest arrears amount – £13m – but Stockton and Redcar and Cleveland councils also saw a rise in the amount they are owed.
All three authorities say the rise in tax arrears is down to Government changes to council tax benefit in 2013 – which led to people receiving higher bills, and some paying for the first time.
Middlesbrough’s Deputy Mayor and executive member for finance and governance, Councillor Dave Budd, said: “The remaining balance will continue to be actively pursued on an ongoing basis.
“Our approach does recognise the impact on vulnerable individuals and those in real hardship.
“It should be noted that nationally, with only a few exceptions, the map of where arrears are highest mirrors the map of high deprivation, greatest cuts to councils and the hardest impact of welfare reform.”
The rising arrears emerged from figures announced from the Department for Communities and Local Government.
This month, The Gazette revealed that almost £9m in council tax went unclaimed in Teesside in 2012/13 – with Middlesbrough having one of the worst collection rates in the country at 93.4%.
The total arrears amount also takes into account unpaid taxes from previous years.
Households in Middlesbrough owe £214 each on average, one of the highest per dwelling amounts in England.
Cllr Budd said that benefit changes “must be taken into account” as Middlesbrough received a £2.6m reduction in Government funding last year, which saw 13,800 residents having to pay more tax – with 10,000 paying for the first time.
Council tax arrears are £5,092,000 in Stockton – a 25% increase on 2012/13 – with households owing £61 each on average across the borough.
Stockton Council’s cabinet member for corporate management and finance, Councillor David Harrington, said: “We collected more than 98% of all Council Tax in 2012/13 and in 2013/14 we collected 96.9%, which is still well above similar authorities.
“It is important to note that the sums quoted do not represent arrears accrued in a single year but those accrued over a number of years and that we continue to work hard to collect outstanding Council Tax amounts after the years in which they first fell due. These figures should also be viewed in the context of the current financial climate and the major changes the Government has made to the welfare system.”
The arrears figure in Redcar and Cleveland is just over £9m – an average of £144 per household.
Norman Pickthall, Redcar and Cleveland Council’s cabinet member for corporate resources, said that the council expected difficulties in collecting tax from those who are struggling, but still collected nearly 96% of council tax last year.
He continued: “Changes to the benefits system mean some people are paying council tax for the first time while others are struggling with dwindling household budgets.
“The council has a statutory duty to collect all debts and will take legal or recovery action as a last resort.
“However, the council will always try to help whenever possible and would urge anyone who is having problems paying their council tax to get in touch.”
Source – middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 18 July 2014
Campaigners are calling for four councils to “get around a table” and discuss moving Yarm into Yorkshire.
It comes after voters in the market town gave an emphatic “Yes” to the idea of transferring Yarm from Stockton to Hambleton Council.
More than 89% of voters who took part in a poll on Tuesday over the future of Yarm’s local administration said they would prefer the town to be under Hambleton’s control.
Only around 11% favoured staying under Stockton Council.
The Yarm 4 Yorkshire campaign claim Stockton Council has ignored people over issues such as parking and housing.
Stockton Council said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the results of the poll until Yarm Town Council had an opportunity “to fully consider the results” or the Boundary Commission asked it “to look into the matter further”.
But one of the organisers of the poll, Chris Johnson, said it was time for the four councils who would be involved in any transfer – Stockton, Yarm, North Yorkshire and Hambleton – to get together “and work out what, if any process, would be done”.
One of the campaigners admitted today they did not even know if Yarm would be better off in Hambleton.
But Mr Johnson explained: “The way forward now would be for the four councils to sit down around the table. Those details would then come out. This is just the first step on the way.”
He said they had also contacted the Local Government Boundary Commission for England in the hope that the “resounding result” would indicate to them “a failing of democracy”.
The result is not legally binding as Government consent would be needed for the town to be transferred to North Yorkshire
Critics say the proposal is unlikely to be introduced.
The turnout for the poll, which was funded by Yarm Town Council and organised by officials from Stockton Council was 25%.
The chair of Yarm Town Council, Peter Monck, branded the poll “a waste of time”, saying: “You can’t claim a victory when 75% didn’t vote. At £4,000 it’s not a good use of council money at all.
“If Stockton Council say they aren’t going to do anything, that’s it – it won’t go any further.
“Even if Stockton Council were to agree to it, it’s a long drawn out process, Hambleton would have to agree and then it would go to the Boundary Commission.”
Labour Leader of Stockton Council, Councillor Bob Cook, said: “For our part, we would reiterate that Stockton Borough Council delivers a huge range of very high quality services from which all of our residents can benefit, no matter where they live.
“Residents’ surveys consistently reveal these services enjoy very high satisfaction levels which show the majority of residents value and appreciate the council’s contribution.
“Of course, like all councils there are times when we have to make difficult decisions and we absolutely understand that people have strong views on issues such as parking and on planning applications for new houses.
“These issues would have to be addressed by whichever local authority had responsibility for Yarm.”
Yarm borough councillor Andrew Sherris, Conservative, said: “We need an open and honest debate with all the information presented on a level playing field without any of the political interference experienced recently with hundreds of letters being sent out to residents.
“The level and quality of service delivery is paramount, particularly for the elderly and more vulnerable members of our Community.”
UKIP councillor Mark Chatburn added: “Critics of this will point to the fact that four out of five residents in Yarm either voted ‘no’ or didn’t even bother to vote. Put in those terms it sounds less convincing than the polling results would suggest.”
James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, said of the result: “People are clearly fed up with Stockton Council riding roughshod over Yarm. This result should act as a wake up call and our Labour run council needs to listen or they will lose ever more support.”
Louise Baldock Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Stockton South, said the result “came as no surprise”, but added: “I am concerned that people as yet know nothing about what a move into a different council authority would mean for the delivery of vital services.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 28 May 2014
A UKIP councillor has been found guilty of misconduct after leaking confidential legal documents intended for councillors’ eyes only.
Mark Chatburn, the only UKIP councillor on Stockton Borough Council, was investigated for publishing the legal paper on his blog.
But the councillor, who represents Yarm, said he was only acting in the best interests of residents and published the confidential legal advice to show how, he claimed, councillors on the planning committee were being influenced in their votes.
He was investigated by Stockton Borough Council for breaching the councillors’ code of conduct and was found guilty in a hearing last week.
Coun Chatburn, who did not attend the hearing, said: “I cannot pretend it came as a surprise the council’s kangaroo court, made up entirely of political opponents, reached the decision they did.
“From how they deal with planning applications, to secretly buying properties to convert into childrens’ homes and presenting residents with a done deal, Stockton council is seemingly incapable of acting in an open and transparent manner.
“I was elected to act in the best interests of residents. That is what I have always done and that is what I will continue to do.”
Coun Chatburn published the legal paper, relating to a controversial planning application at Urlay Nook, near Eaglescliffe, on his blog, linked from his Twitter account.
The legal document said the council would be unlikely to win an appeal against developer Taylor Wimpey if it rejected a plan to build 145 homes and Coun Chatburn said this was trying to influence the voting of the planning committee to vote in favour of the scheme.
The written decision from Stockton Borough Council’s Standards Panel said his actions “represented unacceptable behaviour for a councillor” and also criticised his lack of remorse.
He has been instructed by the panel to give reassurance, in writing, that he would not leak any more confidential information and will be given “advice and guidance” about the code of conduct.
The decision document said: “The Councillor had shown no remorse, but rather to the contrary had indicated that he would do it again without hesitation, and that he had demonstrated scant regard for the pre-hearing and hearing process.”
Coun Chatburn is no longer on Stockton council’s planning committee after defecting from the Conservative Party to UKIP last year.
Source – Northern Echo 07 May 2014
> UKIP’s much vaunted assault on the North east gets off to a poor start… don’t snigger.
The UK Independence Party was heavily defeated in last night’s Yarm Town Council elections – despite the arrival of party leader Nigel Farage for a meet-and-greet the day before the poll.
The UKIP leader had promised during Wednesday’s visit that the North-east would return a Ukip MEP in next month’s Euro elections.
And he added that more councillors would be joining Teesside’s only Ukip councillor – Stockton Council’s Mark Chatburn.
Mr Chatburn defected from the Conservative party in September and later quit Yarm Town Council.
He was among ran nine candidates to run for the three seats up for grabs in yesterday’s Yarm Town Council election.
Mr Chatburn finished eighth with 368 votes.
Seven ballot papers were rejected. A total of 2,041 were issued – a turnout of 30.24%.
Results in full
Lorraine Meakin (Yarm Residents Association) – 1,110 Elected
Martin William Kenefec (Yarm Residents Association) – 1,036 Elected
William James Wilkinson (Yarm Residents Association) – 976 Elected
Carole Jones (Yarm Independent Association) – 636
Fred Holmes (Yarm Independent Association) – 623
Paddy Morton (Yarm Independent Association) – 441
Tom Reay (UKIP) – 385
Mark Chatburn (UKIP) – 368
Mandy Boylett (UKIP) – 322
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette 25 April 2014