Officers’ council tax plan praised

Stuart Drummond
Stuart Drummond

MAYOR Stuart Drummond has praised officers for their efforts in helping to reduce the burden on families before controversial changes to the council tax benefit system.

The Government is giving councils the power to administer the benefit but with a 10 per cent cut in funding from April 2013, meaning financially- stretched families facing further money trouble.

Under the changes, £1.1m will be taken away from Hartlepool Borough Council, with the authority giving away less in benefits.

The actual grant cut for Hartlepool works out at about £14.58 per head of population, the highest in the North- East.

Because pensioners are among the vulnerable groups that will be protected, Hartlepool Borough Council was considering introducing a 20 per cent cut in levels of council tax benefit for others.

But council officers have instead managed to come up with a tapered approach over four years, which would see an 8.5 per cent reduction for 2013-14, 15 per cent for two years after that before it rises to 20 per cent in 2016-17.

It follows an announcement by the Government in October of an additional £100m “transition funding” to help councils for 2013-14 only.

Cabinet committee members have given their backing to that option and the proposals will now go to full council for approval.

Independent councillor Paul Thompson said: “It will give people more time to get used to the changes.”

Mayor Drummond said: “I am really pleased to see this option.

“At first it seemed that it would be unaffordable to taper it but I am really pleased that it has been and hats off to the officers.”

The costs of the current national scheme are met by the Department for Work and Pensions. But under the new local scheme the council will be allocated a grant.

Independent councillor Cath Hill said: “People need to understand we are not the bad guys in this.

“We have to play the hand that we are dealt.”

Labour councillor Christopher Akers-Belcher said he “really welcomed” the move to mitigate the damage down from a 20 per cent rise straight away to an initial 8.5 per cent.

Chris Little, the council’s chief finance officer, said there has been a council tax working group and most of the members supported the 8.5 per cent option.

Labour councillor Marjorie James, chair of the scrutiny co-ordinating committee, said she was “confident” full council would support the recommendation as it had already been supported by scrutiny members at a meeting in early December.

Earlier this summer, Mayor Drummond said a 20 per cent rise from next year would have been “catastrophic” for vulnerable families in town.

He was speaking before a two-month public consultation was carried out on proposals.

Figures show that in Hartlepool, 15,000 households receive the council tax benefit, including 6,600 pensioner households and 8,500 working age households, with the annual amount of benefit awarded around £13.3m.