‘Perfect poverty storm’ fears

County bosses have been urged to head off a “perfect poverty storm” by reinstating full council tax exemptions.

By James Harrison
Tuesday, 12th October 2021, 12:30 am
County Hall in Morpeth.
County Hall in Morpeth.

Current rules for Northumberland County Council mean even the lowest earning households still have to pay at least part of their bill every year.

But the prospect of a tough winter for many of the region’s families has led to calls for the charges to be cancelled for those most in need, even if it means dipping into savings to find the cash needed.

“It worries me that we seem to be heading for a perfect poverty storm, but that as a council we’re happy to continue with last year’s scheme,” said Labour county councillor Elizabeth Dunn.

“Furlough is ending, food prices are going up, energy prices are going up and thousands of people, including people in work, are facing benefit cuts.

“I believe we need to be strengthening the safety nets we have, not adding to the difficulties they face. I don’t think we should dismiss the poorest among us as collateral damage.”

Until 2019, council tax bills in Northumberland could be completely cancelled for those who met the right criteria.

From the start of the 2019/20 financial year however, rules were changed meaning “working-age claimants” of the local authority’s Council Tax Support Scheme could only have their annual charge cut by a maximum of 92 per cent.

Neighbouring County Durham is now the only council in the North East offering a full 100 per cent reduction for the poorest families, although Northumberland is the second most generous in the region.

Speaking to the council’s Corporate Services and Economic Growth Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Labour’s Cllr Alex Wallace claimed it would cost about £1.3million to ensure full discounts could be applied to those in the most need – a fraction of the amount by which the council’s cash reserves grew last year.

However, the panel was convinced to water down its request to spending chiefs, instead urging them to consider using the government’s Household Support Fund, which is expected to send £2.4million Northumberland’s way in the coming months.

Deputy leader of the council Richard Wearmouth said families struggling to pay the remaining part of their council tax bill could also apply through the council’s Hardship Fund to make up any shortfall.