My workload is huge. It has been for a long time and it’s hard to get anywhere near up to date on everything. I specialise in debt recovery and insolvency and for many years I dealt with all insolvency cases that affect council tax records. It is clear now that a lack of central government funding is harming our ability to provide local services.
I’m part of a small team of incredibly hard workers who work on all debt recovery matters to do with council tax. For a while now, and particularly since 2020, the volume of work we’ve had to deal with has grown and grown. This includes work other departments can’t handle and providing phone cover for the contact centre.
The sheer volume of cases we deal with
Hundreds of insolvency cases. An ever-increasing volume of people receiving court summonses who need to make manageable arrangements. A huge number of genuine hard luck cases who we refer to a team that looks for additional financial support. If you want to see examples of how the cost-of-living crisis affects our country, you just need to spend time with us.
At times, it feels like it never ends, and the stress levels are increasing. I’ve considered leaving more than once. We can, and do, go on holidays, but this leads to a mountainous level of work when we return. In my case I am the only person who does some types of work. When some tasks are covered by others, they do this on top of their existing workload, so you still have a significant backlog.
Why not hire more staff?
Some reading this may think, ‘why doesn’t the council just recruit more staff? Easy! Problem solved!’. Well, yes, that would definitely help. It takes some time and resources to train each new member of staff and of course there’s a hope that they stay long enough to gain the necessary experience. New staff would be great and, I won’t lie to you, there have been calls for that a few times. It should be a priority.
Senior management obviously think about things like reputation and public perception. With more staff, the workload goes down and there are fewer delays. Fewer delays mean less chasing from the public and fewer complaints. Spreading the workload amongst more people also means lower stress levels and a possible reduction in staff turnover.
It’s not as simple as that though. In 2010 Labour were removed from power and the Conservatives returned – initially as a coalition and then on their own. In this period, we’ve seen a major change to local government funding.
The increasing cost of council tax
First of all, let’s look at council tax, one of the main sources of income for local authorities –50% of income in 19/20 according to the Institute of Government. It goes toward the funding of a wide variety of essential public services. The following chart shows the percentage change for band D properties since part way through Tony Blair’s Labour government. (sources: government statistical releases for 11/12 and 22/23):
2003 saw a huge percentage increase, but over time it decreased dramatically. In the last days of the last Labour government the average increase was as low as 1.8%. From 2011 onwards the increases started to get higher again – with a peak of 5.1% in 2018.
In 2002, the average charge for a band D property was £976 – 4.79% of the average annual wage at the time. In 2022 it was £1,966 – 5.96% of the average wage. This means that council tax is taking up a higher proportion of people’s earnings.
Then consider the fact that there are many people who earn below the UK average. Worse still, the ONS reported that, as of April 2022, there were 509,000 people who earn less than the national minimum wage. There are lower bands, but it depends on availability. With rental rates going up, it can be a struggle to afford anything. Social housing is a subsidised option, but waiting lists are long and local authority stock has been declining ever since right-to-buy.
If you’re disabled, it’s more complicated. You might not be able to work, have limited benefits and struggle with things like the bedroom tax. There’s also not enough adapted housing.
In my day job I see cases where people can’t afford anything more than token amounts. You have genuine hard luck cases who do what they can, but struggle. There are build-ups of arrears (missed or overdue payments) that take a long time to clear. There’s debt spiralling out of control and more cases of insolvency. Reports on gov.uk show the following:
|Collection rate (%)
You can clearly see that collection rates have gone down and arrears have gone up. This means greater personal debt and less income for public services.
Yes and no.
There is something called the ‘central government grant’, however it’s been substantially cut by the Tories since they returned to power. Research done by the Institute for Government shows the grants were cut by a massive 37% in real terms from 2009/10 to 2019/20. In 2019 alone, the Tories voted for a grant 56% lower than the one for the previous year. That was already 28% lower than the year before.
This puts increasing pressure on other funding sources like council tax, but there’s a further problem. The 2011 Localism Act means that local authorities can only raise council tax by a certain amount without holding a referendum. As a referendum would likely be political suicide and few would support it, it means income only increases by a small amount and authorities must continue to make further savings.
As said above, we all work incredibly hard, but there is a ceiling to what can be achieved with the staff levels that we have. We desperately need more people to do the work and help the public, but the funds just aren’t available.
It means the services important to all of us – education, police, fire services, local authority councils, social care, care homes and much more – are coming under an almost intolerable strain and are almost at breaking point.
The public struggle. Whenever I have contact with someone who is genuinely struggling, I do everything I can within the limits of my job to help. It’s the decent, human thing to do. However, the stress levels are enormous. There’s been a couple of times where I’ve heard something so awful that I’ve been reduced to tears.
I wish I could do more, but the staffing isn’t enough and there’s a limit to the financial support local authorities can provide.
The Tories have devastated personal finances, threatened vital local services and are destroying local authorities. It is clear that they simply do not care.
Everyone is tired of it, and we desperately need a new approach. We need funding, we need staffing, and we need a national government that gives a damn.