Proposed cuts to council-tax support spark heated exchanges

Clockwise from top left, Couns Grant Davey, Nick Oliver, Lynne Grimshaw and David Bawn.
Clockwise from top left, Couns Grant Davey, Nick Oliver, Lynne Grimshaw and David Bawn.

Anger over a proposed cut to council-tax support in Northumberland flared up again as councillors clashed on the issue last week.

Northumberland County Council has recently concluded a consultation on a reduction in the level of council-tax support for working-age claimants to 92 per cent, with a decision due in January.

The current scheme provides assistance of up to 100 per cent of the liability, meaning that some households pay no council tax.

At last Wednesday’s (November 7) full council meeting, when signing off minutes from a previous committee where the matter was first discussed, Labour’s Coun Lynne Grimshaw again went on the offensive about the proposed cut, which she described as ‘absolutely despicable’.

She called on the Conservative administration to withdraw it, mentioning the roll-out of Universal Credit in the county, adding: “Will you be supporting this evil, vile cut?”

Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services, hit back, saying: “I just find that extraordinary. I’m sitting here looking at a proposal that was for £5million, that’s five times what we are proposing (from the previous Labour administration’s 2017-18 budget).”

Labour leader, Coun Grant Davey said he ‘was talking a whole load of tosh’ and, in response to Coun Oliver holding up a document to support his claim, added: “The Labour group did not agree to cut this budget element at all.”

Only Northumberland and Durham in the North East currently offer 100 per cent relief, and about 10 per cent of councils nationally. The cut as proposed would still mean Northumberland’s scheme was more generous than the rest of the region apart from Durham.

Conservative Coun David Bawn said that this must mean that Coun Grimshaw’s Labour colleagues in North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Gateshead and Newcastle are also ‘evil’ for ‘proposing much less generous schemes than what’s on the table here’.

Earlier in the meeting, Coun Georgina Hill had asked if, notwithstanding financial pressures on the council, the administration agrees that ‘a line must be drawn to ensure that our poorest and most vulnerable residents are protected’.

Coun Oliver responded: “We do agree that we have to do everything to protect the poorest families in our communities, but we do, however, have to produce a balanced budget and we have to look across all areas of council spending.”

Following up, Coun Hill referred specifically to council-tax support, saying that even £2 a week could ‘place an intolerable burden on the household finances of the poorest families’.

Coun Oliver replied: “The proposed changes in the local council-tax support scheme give us no pleasure, but we were left with a £65million black hole and we need to find £36million of savings.

“We are aware that any amount to the poorest families is difficult, it’s not something we do lightly, but we have to find these savings. We have a responsibility to the whole county and to all our residents to find these savings.”

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.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service