Arriving at my first party conference, I was full of questions. Would our event run to plan, would the room be ready, would the speakers be any good and, most importantly of all, would anyone actually turn up to hear them?
Council tax doesn’t tend to draw in the crowds, and council tax support certainly doesn’t. Yet it’s something that affects us all, through the amount we pay and the revenues available for essential services. And sadly, as with so many current welfare reforms, government cuts are having a hugely damaging impact on the poorest members of our society.
In 2013 the coalition government abolished council tax benefit, forcing local councils to carry the costs of support for their most vulnerable residents. This was made even more difficult by a 10 per cent cut in funding. While eight London boroughs have maintained full support for claimants, the majority have introduced minimum payment schemes. This means people previously deemed too poor to pay are now expected to afford up to 30 per cent of the council tax bill.
We’ve been monitoring the detrimental impacts this has had on both residents and local authorities – and campaigning for the reintroduction of full support – ever since.
Our event at the Labour party conference aimed to call attention to this vastly under-publicised issue, whilst also giving councillors the opportunity to discuss their different approaches.
I was particularly pleased to hear Councillor Stephen Alambritis, Leader of Merton Council, announce their commitment to maintaining full support for all claimants in 2018-19. Councillor Alambritis said their decision was based on the principle of not pushing the burden of government cuts onto the poorest – a principle we’ve been advocating for some time.
Councillor Georgia Gould, the new Leader of Camden Council, explained how increasing charges on empty and second homes had enabled Camden to remove minimum payments and reinstate 100 per cent support. She also pointed out the regressive nature of council tax itself and called for a fundamental review of how local government is funded – something which is now needed more urgently than ever.
Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Yvonne Fovargue MP then highlighted many councils’ aggressive collection practices. It’s a crucial issue: in 2016-17, nearly 19,000 council tax support claimants in London were referred to bailiffs. Quite apart from the costs to local authorities (as any money collected goes to paying bailiff fees before councils see a single penny), this puts residents through unnecessary distress. We’re hoping Yvonne Fovargue will be able to take her demands for statutory rulings on better collection practices to parliament.
Best of all though were the questions and suggestions from members of the audience, who brought a wealth of knowledge of the issues and systems in their local areas.
The event showed that although cuts are putting local authorities and residents under monumental constraints, there is still cause for hope. If some councils can provide full support, end bailiff use and develop more progressive income streams, others can too.
And to my relief, people did turn up – to hear about this, to discuss it and to demonstrate that for local authorities and residents alike, improving council tax support is still very much a key concern.