Further concerns have been raised about proposed cuts to council-tax support in Northumberland, which were described as ‘a blunt instrument’.
As previously reported, the proposals look set to go ahead, after consultation revealed a majority in favour of the cost-cutting measure, which the county council says will save £1million a year.
Ahead of Wednesday’s (December 19) decision by the cabinet, councillors on the authority’s corporate services committee discussed the issue for the second time on Monday (December 17).
Coun Malcolm Robinson appreciated the need for budget savings, but said: “I think it’s a blunt hammer, I think it should be more targeted.”
The council has consulted on a reduction in the level of council-tax support for working-age claimants to 92 per cent. The current scheme provides up to 100 per cent, meaning that some households pay no council tax.
The proposal has sparked criticism and controversy, however, the results of the six-week consultation show that of the 512 respondents, 51 per cent agreed with it.
Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate resources, said: “It’s not something we do lightly, but we are looking to make £36million of savings over the next three years and looking at all areas of council spending.
“This will represent less than three per cent of those savings and other areas are being asked to make more stringent cuts.”
He also highlighted that the consultation showed that the alternatives – increasing council tax across the board, finding savings elsewhere or using savings – were far less popular.
Coun Oliver added that none of these options was really viable either given that council tax is to go up by 2.99 per cent anyway, all areas of council spending are already facing cuts and that savings can only be spent once, while this is a recurring cost.
He again pointed out that only Northumberland and Durham in the North East, and about 10 per cent of councils nationally, currently offer 100 per cent relief and asking residents to pay eight per cent of the bill would still be more generous than the rest of the region apart from Durham.
But Coun Robinson said that this was being used as an excuse to cut support and that the council ‘should rejoice in being generous’.
He suggested that the reduction should not apply in the first year of someone needing the support and called for the cut to be deferred, given the potential impact of the roll-out of Universal Credit. However, this proposal was not put formally or voted on by the committee.
Coun Oliver had said that deferral would mean savings had to be found elsewhere and that Universal Credit was only being rolled out for new claimants at this stage so delaying this cut would mean it may actually have more of an impact in the future.
Earlier in the meeting, Coun Ken Parry had raised concerns that only a sample of 1,000 residents was consulted, but it was explained that these surveys mailed out directly was only one part of the whole process.
“It was on television and in all the newspapers so I don’t see how we could have done more on the consultation,” Coun Oliver said.
An eight per cent reduction will reduce the cost of the scheme by £1.2million and, based on an anticipated collection level of 83 per cent over time, would generate additional council-tax receipts of £1million.
To a typical band A property, the change would mean a council-tax bill of £98.55 per year for a couple/family or £73.91 for a single person.
There is no change proposed to the scheme for pensioners which is prescribed by the Government and not at the discretion of local authorities.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service