Labour has continued its attack on cuts to council-tax support in Northumberland, as figures show how the reductions will disproportionately impact wards it represents.
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 in January, members agreed a reduction in the level of council-tax support for working-age claimants from 100 to 92 per cent.
The change attracted some fervent criticism, but was passed by 31 votes to 26, with six abstentions, while an amendment to drop the cut as part of last week’s budget debate was not put to the vote as it had already been passed the previous month.
Now, Labour has released information obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, in which, they say, ‘the unfair nature of balancing the county’s books is laid bare’.
A breakdown of the number of people to be affected in each of the 66 council wards shows that there is a large discrepancy between different areas, much of it along party-political lines.
A total of 15,426 people are expected to be affected, according to the figures, and just 21 are in council and Conservative leader Peter Jackson’s Ponteland South with Heddon ward – the lowest number in Northumberland.
The ward with the most people expected to be affected (767) is Hirst, in Ashington, represented by Labour’s Coun Ken Parry.
The remainder of the top 10 most affected are all Labour wards in the south-east of the county with the exception of Alnwick – a ‘double’ ward now represented by two Conservative councillors, following a merger of the previous Alnwick and Lesbury wards.
The top eight are all in Ashington or Blyth, with Newbiggin Central and East coming in at number nine.
Meanwhile, seven of the 10 least affected wards are held by Conservatives, with the other three being represented by two independents and a Lib Dem – the latter being South Blyth.
Plus, five of those seven Tory wards are represented by members of the decision-making cabinet – with the council leader’s seat followed in second place by the deputy leader’s Cramlington North ward.
The FOI data also shows that of the 15,426 expected to be affected, around half (7,679) are single women, almost three in 10 (4,456) receive disability premium and more than 40 per cent (6,442) of the claimants have children.
Plus, at least 152 Northumberland County Council staff will be affected, according to the figures.
Coun Susan Dungworth said: “The Tories promised to build a county that worked for everyone, but their actions show a very different story.
“Their desire to balance their own financial mismanagement on the backs of the poor and the vulnerable shows their true colours.
“Not only will this callous move disproportionately hurt low-paid women and the disabled, it will hammer high streets already under strain.
“Taking more than £1million from the pockets of the county’s poorest residents will directly hit the local economy. High streets like Bedlington simply cannot afford to see tens of thousands of pounds lost from the pockets of local people.”
But the Conservative administration at County Hall has been consistent in its rationale for the cost-saving measure.
In December, 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.”
At the meeting in January when the cut was signed off, Coun 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.”
He also pledged not to cut the support any further during the remainder of his administration’s term of office (up to 2021).
The Tories continue to maintain 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.
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.
The cost of the 26,984 people receiving support in 2018-19 is forecast to total £25million, of which 15,425 working-age claimants get £14million and 11,559 pensioners receive £11million.
Of the 15,425 working-age claimants, more than three-quarters (12,010) receive the full relief and currently have no bill to pay.
An eight per cent reduction in the maximum support would 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.
In terms of the impact on those currently receiving 100 per cent support, an eight per cent reduction to a typical band A property would mean a council-tax bill of £98.55 per year for a couple/family or £73.91 for a single person.
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