Record rise in council tax debtors

0
Have your say

UNPAID council tax in Whitby and the surrounding area has hit a record level.

An increasing number of householders have told the council that they cannot afford to meet the payments, a spokesman said.

New figures show that more than £1 million in council tax – 40 per cent of the total balance – still owed to Scarborough Council was accumulated in the 2009/10 financial year.

More than £360,000 remains outstanding from the 2007/08 financial year, while £626,000 is still owed from 2008/09.

Elaine Rhodes, the council’s revenues manager, said she had noticed an increase in the number of people falling behind with payments in recent years, as unemployment rises due to the country’s economic woes.

“Unpaid council tax is a big issue for us,” she said.

“The figures seem really large but we are chipping away at it all the time.

“It can take us a long time but we don’t give up – we will carry on trying to collect the money no matter how old the debt.

“Where customers moved away leaving no forwarding address but owing council tax, we’ll use various methods to trace them and take action to recover what’s owed.

“We eventually collect around 99 per cent but it may take a few years.”

She added: “Recently people have been taking longer to pay and are paying it off over longer periods.

“More and more people are going bankrupt and getting debt collection orders, which means we have to write sums off.”

Over the past few years, the council has seen a significant shift in the reasons residents give for non-payment.

The majority now say they cannot afford payments, rather than willingly refusing to pay the tax.

The number of council tax benefit claims that the council receives has also increased dramatically.

The sums represent debts which the council are actively pursuing.

They do not include council tax arrears which the council have been forced to abandon.

Less than one per cent of the charges raised eventually becomes uncollectable.

The figures date back to 1993 when the council tax replaced the controversial poll tax.

Around £465,000 of debt which was built up by residents between 1993 and 2007 is still to be paid.

If collected in full, the total outstanding sum would pay for the deep cutbacks to next year’s council’s budget.

It is expected that 50 people will lose their jobs because of the cuts.

Northgate Public Services, which was recently awarded a £800,000 contract as Scarborough Council’s efficiency partner, has attempted to improve the way the local authority collects debts.

Although the borough collects the tax, the county council takes about 70 per cent of it, with parish councils, and the fire and police services also taking a share.

Scarborough and District Citizens’ Advice Bureau are paid by the council to run weekly sessions to assist people who are having problems paying council tax.

The number of people contacting the charity with issues regarding council tax rose from 209 between April and December 2009 to 227 in the same period the following year – an increase of 8.6 per cent.

Chief executive officer Jill Mandy said: “I think there are two issues.

“One is with poverty and the other is a lack of understanding among quite a lot of people that council tax needs to be a priority.

“The measures the council can take against you are severe and the debt will never go away - councils never forget and they can chase you round the country for years. “Council tax is one of the few debts you can still go to jail for and bailiffs are a nightmare to deal with.

“However some people just can’t afford it. “Incomes in Scarborough are not high and budgeting can be extremely difficult when you have no money to budget with.”

The council regularly prosecutes residents who fall behind with their council tax payments.

Between April and November last year, almost 4,000 summonses were issued in the Scarborough area to people who had fallen into arrears.

If a liability order is made in court, the council are given powers to recover the money owned.

People who are struggling to keep up with payments are encouraged to contact the council, who can offer advice or set up a payment plan before court proceedings are initiated.

* Drop-in sessions, run by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, take place on Tuesdays between 10am and noon at Customer First in St. Thomas Street, and at the same time on Thursdays at Whitby Citizens’ Advice Bureau office.