Preston councillors clash over Covid council tax support

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A row has broken out over the promotion of the council tax help available to low-income households in Preston during the coronavirus outbreak.

The government announced a scheme at the budget in March under which all billpayers who currently receive council tax support from their local authority will receive a further £150 credit on the already reduced amounts which they have to pay.

The additional cut has yet to be applied to residents in Preston, because the council says the software provider implementing the measure has “struggled to design a solution” to enable the necessary change to be made on its system.

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But Liberal Democrat opposition councillor Daniel Gregg said that householders should at least have been made aware that the credit was coming – but he claims that Preston City Council did not upload details to its website until 1st June.

Cllrs Daniel Gregg and Martyn Rawlinson (Town Hall image: Google Streetview)Cllrs Daniel Gregg and Martyn Rawlinson (Town Hall image: Google Streetview)
Cllrs Daniel Gregg and Martyn Rawlinson (Town Hall image: Google Streetview)

“I’m absolutely appalled at how long it’s taken for Labour to make the information public. If Pendle Council [did so] as soon as the chancellor made his announcement, then what stopped Preston?

“I watched the budget, so I understood that this money was going to be available – but other people who claim council tax support might not have known about it, so they might have been struggling and having to make ends meet.

“They might even have extended their payments over 12 months instead of 10, meaning that they won’t have the usual two-month gap in bills at the end of the financial year,” said Cllr Gregg.

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He also criticised cabinet member for resources Martyn Rawlinson for expressing concern in an email to him about “broadcasting” the option to delay council tax payments from between April and January to June through to March.

Cllr Rawlinson stressed in the message that any such requests from residents would be granted “without question” and that the council was working with people to revise their payment plans – but he feared the impact on the council’s cash flow if the option encouraged people who were still in a position to pay their bills to defer doing so.

Detail about the chance to amend the usual council tax payment schedule is also included on the webpage outlining the forthcoming £150 credit.

Cllr Rawlinson told the Post: “New bills will go out throughout July for those that are entitled to the Covid-19 discount. Other councils using the same software are in the same position [as Preston].

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“This is not a cash payout, it is a discount, so no-one has lost any money. Anyone who asked to delay payments has been accommodated.”

According to papers to be presented to a full council meeting next week, the number of residents applying for council tax support in Preston has increased by 10 percent as a result of the pandemic. The authority has said that it will not actively pursue council tax arreas between April and June this year.

Council leader Matthew Brown said: “We are always on the front foot in helping residents who need our support, and this issue is no exception.

“Cllr Gregg is aware that information is on the council’s website about the council tax support scheme and that we, like many other councils, are awaiting final software changes from our supplier to be able to fulfil this commitment.

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“Preston will be offering an additional £150 to all working age, local Council Tax Support recipients in the area, soon after the full council meeting on 25th June. There will be no need for people to apply.

“Furthermore, the council is flexible in its payment arrangements for those who have struggled to pay during the pandemic and is working with individual taxpayers to help them through their financial problems.”

The city council forecasts that it will have around £350,000 left over from the government’s £1.8m grant to the authority to cover the cost of £150 council tax credits. Under the rules of the scheme, that money must then be used to offer other discretionary help – and Preston is expecting to establish a hardship fund with the remaining cash.

“[This] will allow time and space for the council to take a step back and reconsider its offering, not just in terms of existing schemes that are currently well-funded – such as foodbanks and welfare schemes – but also in terms of service provision and, in particular customer, engagement, assisting the most vulnerable members of society with their needs,” a council report notes.