The City Council has voted not to change its existing levels of council tax support for the year commencing 1st April, despite reduced grant from the government.
The decision was made at an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council last night, which backed a motion proposed by Councillor Abbott Bryning, Cabinet member for Finance and Seconded by Council Leader Eileen Blamire, after an often emotional debate.
A combination of Labour and Green support ensured that the motion was carried by 33 votes for to 13 votes against.
The proposers maintained that the adopted scheme gave the council time during the course of the next financial year to learn from the experiences of other councils who will be reducing council tax support levels.
Councillor Bryning accused the government of transferring responsibility for council tax support from Whitehall to Town Halls, in a move that has been widely described as a “Poll Tax Mark II”.
Speaking in the debate, Labour Councillor Ian Pattison said “The decision of the government to force these changes on local authorities comes as other benefits are being reduced for working families and vulnerable people. It is vital that the least well off are protected and that we make sure the system is fair. A tax cut for millionaires at a time when hard working families are being hit with social security cuts only shows how out of touch this Tory-led government is”.
The decision comes as other councils across the country also decided to absorb the costs of reduced government grants, after an announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government that an additional £100 million of funding would be made available to councils to develop schemes that meet certain criteria of "best practice".
An amendment to the local government finance bill, which sets out that the reforms to council tax benefit will be subject to review after three years, has also played a part in councils delaying reducing support.
As we previously reported, although more than 200 local authorities had already drafted individual council tax support schemes, many are now amending their plans in order to qualify for the grant, are reopening consultations or extending their consultation periods. Additionally, notes Sabrina Bushe at NPI, it is plausible that councils will opt to "wait and see", absorb the cut and reappraise next year, going through the process all over again.
Despite the council tax benefit reform being heralded as an important step towards localism, the promise of autonomy that it offered seems unlikely to be realised. Furthermore, it is deeply worrying that with a mere seven weeks remaining for councils to decide on the new schemes the future of council tax benefit in England remains highly uncertain.
The findings featured precede a larger research project by the New Policy Institute, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which will detail the new schemes adopted by all councils across England and the effects of reform on the estimated 3.7 million council tax benefit claimants.
• The NPI and False Economy findings are publicly available online at counciltaxsupport.org.
• The Council reports on Localised Tax Support are here and here (PDF format) is available on the council’s website at www.lancaster.gov.uk. The meeting agenda is here.