Changes to council tax support in Worthing supported - but may be 16 months away

Worthing’s councillors approved proposed changes to council tax support but voiced frustrations that they may not come until 2023.

Some of the poorest residents in Worthing may no longer have to contribute towards council tax

If the change goes ahead, it could see a £5 restriction on council tax support removed as well as a £150 discretionary hardship fund for residents on a low income.

The restriction, introduced in 2015, meant that some residents of working age, who previously received full council tax support, suddenly had to pay several hundred pounds a year.

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Council leader Kevin Jenkins (Con, Gaisford) suggested the move earlier this month and it was supported at a full council meeting on Tuesday (December 14).

A report on the hardship fund is expected in March 2022 but members on both sides of the chamber expressed frustration that the £5 restriction may not be scrapped until at least 2023.

Hazel Thorpe (LDem, Tarring) said: “This change in direction is a long time coming.

“I am very concerned however, that it will not happen immediately, or at least until next April.

“The people need their support today – they can’t wait another couple of years.”

Council officers previously explained the delay, saying it was down to the effects of the changes on West Sussex County Council and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, which receive a share of council tax collected in the borough.

Officers said this could lead to a ‘material and immediate shock’ to WSCC’s and the PCC’s budgets.

This was estimated at £670,000 for WSCC and £88,000 for the PCC while the impact on Worthing Borough Council would be around £117,000.

Deputy council leader Ed Crouch (Con, Marine) said: “I agree that this should be pursued at pace, but clearly in a proportionate and sensible way that doesn’t leave us open to judicial review.”

Conservatives accused of ‘U-turn’ by opposition

Labour members said the proposal had been timed to coincide with the run up to May’s elections, when the Conservatives could lose control of the council.

The Conservative-led council previously voted to keep the £5 restriction in December 2020.

Carl Walker (Lab, Selden) said: “This is long overdue but councillor Margaret Howard has been imploring you to make this change for years.

“If you think you’re going to get lauded for punishing the most vulnerable people in our town year, after year, after year, and then suddenly changing your mind when it looks like you might lose the council, you are wrong.”

Mr Walker sits on the Discretionary Housing Payments Board and said ‘only 251 claimaints’ had received support.

Labour group leader Beccy Cooper (Marine) said the timing of the proposals ‘demonstrates either a lack of ability to run an administration or a cynical attempt to not have it introduced until 2023’.

She said that COVID had been cited as the reason for the change but that the impacts of the pandemic had been felt for over a year and residents suffered hardship before this.

Council leader Kevin Jenkins said: “COVID was not one of the single and only drivers behind all of this.

“There is the global inflationary cost of food and there are changes to fuel costs that we know are going to be spiralling and this is the right time to do it.”

The leader said he had not had ‘one phone call, one email, one letter, one direct conversation’ with the Labour group, saying it had been ‘silent on this matter’.

“Do not lecture when you cannot do what you aspire others to do,” Mr Jenkins said.