Continued criticism as council-tax support cut given final sign-off

Cuts to council-tax support in Northumberland were given the final nod this week as the cost-saving measure was put to a vote by all county councillors.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 11 January, 2019, 10:50
Northumberland County Council

From April, all households in the county will have to pay a minimum of eight per cent of their council-tax bill, following approval for changes to save £1million a year.

At Northumberland County Council’s full meeting on Wednesday (January 9), members agreed 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.

To a typical band A property, the change will mean a council-tax bill of £98.55 per year for a couple/family or £73.91 for a single person.

The much-discussed proposal, which has attracted some fervent criticism but was supported by a majority of respondents during a six-week consultation, was passed by 31 votes to 26. There were six abstentions – the Lib Dems and the Bedlington Independents – who could have swayed the vote the other way.

Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services, said: “It’s not something we do lightly, but we are looking for £36million-worth of savings.”

Labour’s Coun Deirdre Campbell repeated her call for the administration to rethink this or hold off for now.

“It just seems we’re hammering the people who can least afford it, it’s dreadful, we shouldn’t be sitting here doing this for the amount of money involved,” she said.

Coun Susan Dungworth added: “There’s lots of reports going backwards and forwards about an eight per cent increase here, another £20 a week, another £50 a week. To most of us here in this chamber, that’s not a bad thing, we can manage that.

“But when you are literally down to pennies at the end of the month in terms of your spending and it’s a choice between the kids’ school uniform, food, heating or paying ‘just eight per cent’, those are choices I’ve never had to make and I hope none of you have to make, but they are really serious, substantial, difficult choices and we don’t need to do this. It doesn’t make enough money to make that hardship worthwhile.”

Coun Georgina Hill said she appreciated there are tough financial decisions to be made, suggesting the blame lay with the ‘financial mismanagement of the previous administration’.

However, she added: “£2 a week for most of us is just a coin we have in our pocket to buy a newspaper or whatever, but for some people, £2 is literally a few meals and it really makes that much difference.”

Council and Conservative leader Peter Jackson said: “We are facing some extremely difficult decisions. Why are we having to do that? I’ve made no secret about the £65million black-hole that we inherited from the previous Labour administration.

“The public consultation went out and 51 or 52% of the people surveyed, on a reasonable, statistically-significant survey, actually agreed that most people in this county should make a contribution, a very small contribution, to council services.”

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He also pledged not to cut the support any further during the remainder of his administration’s term of office (up to 2021).

Lib Dem leader, Coun Jeff Reid, had earlier questioned whether the difficulty of actually collecting this extra council tax had been considered.

Coun Oliver explained that the normal collection rate in Northumberland is around 98 per cent and for the purpose of this budget proposal, the collection rate is estimated at 83 per cent, which is benchmarked against other councils in the North East.

The debate started with a rehashing of the arguments about whether or not Labour had planned to cut council-tax support even further.

The Conservative administration maintains that the eight per cent cut leaves those affected far better off than if the previous Labour council had regained power last year, given that proposals had been drawn up to cut the support by over five times as much – 50 per cent, it has been claimed.

But Labour councillors have strongly and repeatedly denied this, despite Coun Oliver saying he has documents which prove it.

Following the meeting, Ian Lavery, the MP for Wansbeck and chairman of the Labour Party, said: “The out-of-touch Tory administration has chosen to implement a swingeing cut on some of our most vulnerable residents across Northumberland.

“They have made this decision knowing full well the impact it will have on those who rely on council-tax support, those people the council has a duty to protect and care for.”

He added: “The moral argument in this vote is clear and those who chose to abstain are equally responsible for this cruel and unnecessary cut.”

However, the Conservatives have also highlighted that Northumberland’s scheme, which will now provide a maximum of 92 per cent relief, is still more generous than every other local authority in the North East, apart from Durham, meaning Labour councils across the region have brought in more punitive cuts.

There will be no change 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