‘Unfair’ council tax charge on Worthing’s poorest residents could be scrapped

The leader of Worthing Borough Council called for more council tax support at a meeting on Tuesday (December 7).

Council tax bill

Kevin Jenkins (Con, Gaisford) called for the £5 restriction on council tax support for Worthing’s working families to be removed.

Council tax support (previously council tax benefit) is awarded to people on a low income to help towards the costs of council tax.

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Mr Jenkins’ recommendations were passed unanimously during a meeting of the joint strategic committee (JSC) which sees members of Adur District Council and Worthing Borough Council meet together.

Worthing members approved this but Adur has no such limit and its council tax support scheme will remain the same next year.

The £5 limit was introduced in 2015 and saw an ‘immediate increase’ in council tax income for WBC.

Some residents of working age, who previously received full council tax support, suddenly had to pay several hundred pounds.

The council said this was a ‘significant change’ and it helped to support these residents financially through discretionary awards. 

During the JSC meeting, Mr Jenkins explained the need for more support.

He said: “Over the last 18 months the whole world has changed and the impact of the pandemic has had a more far reaching effect on many aspects of our lives, none more so than its terrible toll on people’s health and the loss of loved ones.

“It has had a wider, deeper and lasting impact on our communities, it has exposed their vulnerabilities and highlighted how those who are the most vulnerable in our town have faced huge challenges to support and protect their families personal, emotional and mental health.

“Those pressures are still persisting, with volatility in the employment and housing sectors as people relocate.

“But also around everyday pressures; with the global food chain disrupted we are seeing inflationary cost pressures on food and in particular significant changes to fuel costs to keep our homes warm.”

However, the council’s Labour group called the decision a ‘U-turn’.

Margaret Howard (Lab, Broadwater) said: “I have been consistently asking for this unfair charge on our poorest residents to be removed since I was elected

in 2018.

“It is clear that the only reason the Tories are agreeing now is because they know they will lose the vote at full council next week as they no longer have the numbers.”

Labour group leader Beccy Cooper said: “It is clear that last night, the only reason the Tories decided to do the right thing is that they know they would lose the vote at full council next week. Nevertheless this is a victory.”

Worthing’s full council decided to retain the limit in December 2020.

Hardship scheme

Mr Jenkins also requested a hardship scheme as part of council tax support.

This could be similar to the £150 government grant during the pandemic in 2020/21 which the councils chose to continue into 2022.

A report will be presented to the JSC by March 2022 and will outline how the support will be funded.

Mr Jenkins said: “As a council we have a duty to listen to our communities and work to support them when they are most in need.

“Some need practical interventions, others need signposting; but what is a common theme across that wider group is the financial pressures they all face, day to day, just to survive.

“We need to be able to get that support to them in the most direct way and now I believe we should be making changes that will do just that. “

Changes will have to wait

The council leader wanted to see the change happen as soon as possible but council officers explained this was not advisable.

Officers looked into introducing changes for the 2022-23 financial year but said doing so would ‘run a number of quite severe risks’.

One of those risks would be leaving just 14 days for a public consultation and to give notice to West Sussex County Council and Sussex’s Police and Crime Commissioner – which both receive a share of Worthing council tax income.

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

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

“Whilst it might be technically possible, we would advise that you allow us to make those changes for the 2023-2024 council tax support scheme,” officers told the council leader.

It was agreed that the changes could be made for 2023 and this has been recommended to Worthing’s full council.

As a result, the £5 weekly restriction will be kept for the 2022-23 financial year.

Council tax support is ‘ever-increasing cost’

According to a council report, income from the revenue support grant and retained business rates ‘has fallen each year’, with the support grant coming to an end.

As a result, the council tax support scheme has been an ‘ever-increasing cost’ and there is a shortfall in funding for 2021/22.

The cost of council tax support to WBC has decreased since 2012 while council tax has increased.

In the 2012/13 financial year, the cost of council tax support in Worthing was £7,287,000.

But during the 2020/21 financial year this cost was £5,800,000.

In this time council tax increased by more than 4.8 per cent.

Since the 2018/2019 financial year, the cost of council tax support to the council has started to increase – 2020-21 is no exception due to the impacts of COVID.

Officers say that COVID also made council tax collection ‘challenging’ and rates are down by more than 4.6 per cent when compared to the end of September 2020.

Officer recommendations for council tax support including Mr Jenkins’ amendments, will now go to Worthing’s full council meeting on December 14.