Big rise in number of South Yorkshire people seeking help with council tax arrears

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More and more people are turning to a charity debt line for help with council tax arrears, according to its chief executive.

More than 3,000 people from South Yorkshire called the free and confidential National Debtline for help and advice in 2014 – although it is not known how many called about council tax arrears specifically.

But concerns are growing, particularly as figures show the amount of council tax arrears owed across the county has increased to more than £80.2 million from £74.2m in 2013-14.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, which runs the helpline and compiled the data, said: “We are seeing more and more people seek help with council tax arrears – but the fact South Yorkshire residents owe £80 million makes us concerned many more people in the area are struggling alone.

“We would like to see councils do everything they can to help residents who are falling behind to seek the free advice that can turn their lives around. We know the earlier a problem is caught, the better the outcome.

“I would urge anyone in South Yorkshire who is struggling to make their council tax payments to contact National Debtline.”

More than half of the £80m debt is owed in Sheffield, and the average household in arrears is £168 behind with payments, according to the data.

In March, Sheffield Council was owed £40.2m, up from £39.6m the previous year.

Since then, the first council tax rise in five years, of 1,9 per cent or £29 a year on a band D property, has also come into force across the city.

The situation is complex as local authorities must file their figures to the Government at the end of every financial year, but between those points they can recoup millions in historically owed tax only for new arrears to mount up.

The council says it collected £12.7m from the £39m debt in 2014, and the £40.2m total has been reduced by £3.5m since March.

A Sheffield Council spokesman said: “We take the collection of council tax very seriously and take all steps to ensure we collect as much as possible.

“It is not acceptable not to pay and people who refuse will be chased and prosecuted.

“Sheffield is the third largest local authority in the country in terms of population and it is not surprising we have a higher amount of uncollected council tax than in smaller authorities.

“Overall we collect around 99 per cent of council tax owed and our collection rates are in line with other major cities. If the Government was as efficient in collecting tax owed as we were, there would be an extra £20 billion in the Treasury coffers.

“We fully expect to recover further arrears this year and do everything we can to recover council tax owed to us.”

The figures also show 1,480 calls from Sheffield people were made to its line asking for help and advice last year, the most in South Yorkshire.

Doncaster Council had the second highest arrears bill, at £19.2m, up from £17m.

The average household there owes £145 and only 366 calls were made to the debtline.

Simon Wiles, Doncaster Council’s, director of finance and corporate service, said: “The £19m represents around one per cent of the total amount due to the council since 1993.

“In 2014-15 the total council tax debit for the year was over £104m, of which more than £98m was collected in the year.

“In addition £4m was collected in arrears which had accrued before 2014-15. All efforts continue to be made to recover outstanding arrears including special payment arrangements, attachments of earnings and benefits, use of collection agents and ultimately legal action.”

In Barnsley less is owed at £12.5m, up from £11.1m, but unusually it had the second highest number of people calling the debt line for help. In total 659 people made the call. The council says £8.2m is historic bills and unlike other councils it has not written off old debts, instead continuing to try to recover amounts owed.

Coun Alan Gardiner, cabinet spokesman for corporate services, said: “Recent figures which show a rise in unpaid council tax in Barnsley need to be viewed in context of the total collectable debt, which dates back to 1993.

“This actually equates to an overall collection rate of 98.92 per cent and overall is not a position to be unduly concerned about.

“We are committed to continue increasing efficiency in council tax collections as a whole. The increase in the number of calls locally to debt helplines is a concern, however, this may not be linked directly to council tax arrears.

“The council does support residents on lower incomes through our council tax support scheme.”

Rotherham Council had the lowest unpaid council tax bill, at £8m, up from £6.5m. This equated to £70 arrears per dwelling and 522 calls were made to the helpline.

A spokesman said the council collected 97.2 per cent of its council tax in 2014-15 and its average arrears of £67 per property was significantly lower than the average for metropolitan councils at £157.

Arrears were only written off when they are ‘uneconomical’ to collect.

The spokesman added: “In Rotherham we take the collection of arrears seriously and traditionally have a very high collection level which has enabled the council to have low levels of arrears per property in comparison with other councils.

“In the current economic climate, when local authorities are being criticised by the government for their collection rates and arrears, every extra pound collected helps the council provide much-needed services.

“In Rotherham we adopt a firm but fair collection policy to ensure those who are able to pay do so, and those that are struggling to make payments and are in genuine financial hardship are provided assistance through benefits, discounts and advice.

“We advise people, if they are having issues with debt, to contact a debt advisory service as soon as possible.

“This means that it is much fairer for all those who do pay and they should be assured that where we can, we will continue to use all appropriate recovery and enforcement action to collect the outstanding debt from those that won’t pay.”

n Visit www.nationaldebtline.org or call 0808 808 4000 for help and advice.