At a meeting of the county council’s cabinet on October 8, members approved the continuation of the current scheme, with no changes for 2020-21.
Since April this year, all working-age households in the county have had to pay a minimum of eight per cent of their council-tax bill, a cost-saving measure designed to save £1million a year.
County councillors agreed by 31 votes to 26 back in January to a reduction in the maximum level of support for working-age claimants to 92 per cent. The previous scheme provided up to 100%, meaning that some households paid no council tax.
This year, it means a council-tax bill of £98.55 per year for a couple/family or £73.91 for a single person in a typical band A property. There has been no change to the scheme for pensioners though, which is prescribed by the Government and continues to pay up to 100% support.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, acknowledged the concerns that were raised before about how it might affect families and said that it was ‘too early to give an accurate view’ on the collection rates, with some previously suggesting they would be so low as to not result in the savings envisaged.
Commenting on the decision, Labour’s Coun Lynne Grimshaw, one of the main critics last time round, said: “It’s typical of the Tories to target those with the least.
“The time, money and resources spent chasing people on low incomes to cough up money they don’t have could be much better spent elsewhere.
“The amount this will add to council coffers is not worth the anguish it will cause to so many.”
During the original debate on this issue, Coun Oliver repeatedly said that it was not ‘something we do lightly’, but within the context of the need to save £36million.
At January’s full council meeting, Conservative leader Peter Jackson added: “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.”
He also pledged not to cut the support any further during the remainder of his administration’s term of office (up to 2021).
The Conservative administration maintained that the 8% cut left those affected far better off than if the previous Labour council had regained power in 2017, given that proposals had been drawn up to cut the support by 50%. Labour councillors strongly and repeatedly denied this.
The Tories also highlighted that Northumberland’s scheme was 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.
Also at this week’s meeting, as previously reported, the cabinet agreed to introduce additional empty home premiums from April next year for properties that are ‘unoccupied and substantially unfurnished’.
Taking advantage of changes in national legislation, this means that owners of homes left empty for long periods could face council tax bills up to four times higher than the going rate.
Coun Allan Hepple, Labour’s shadow cabinet member for housing, said: “The initiative to charge people higher council tax for empty homes was started by Labour’s Mayor for London, Sadiq Khan, and is a step in the right direction from the Tories who are finally doing something to address the empty homes that blight our county.
“But all efforts must be made to ensure people’s circumstances are taken into account. Someone residing in a care home for example should not have the added stress and worry of a 300% increase in their council tax bill.”