UK Council Tax Arrears Are Out Of Control!

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2nd February 2023


written by: Jacqui Deevoy

Jacqui Deevoy is a freelance journalist, producer and presenter. She’s worked for national newspapers and magazines for over three decades but, these days, focuses mainly on stories that the mainstream media refuse to publish. Catch her chat show every Friday at 7pm on Unity News Network.

I’ve been told I owe thousands of pounds in council tax. I’ve seen the bill. It’s pretty scary. The only consolation is knowing that I’m not alone.

Over the last three years, the number of people not paying council tax has increased. The main reason for not paying is ‘because Covid’, with many playing the authorities at their own game. Others have better things to spend their money on - food and heating for example - and although the government tells us that council tax arrears are officially classed as ‘high priority debt’, in reality that means nothing to people who are struggling to feed their children or hear their homes. Not surprisingly, paying council tax slips right down the list of priorities. 

A Freedom of Information request sent out to nine English councils last year showed that, in England alone, council tax arrears stood at over £82 million by the end of 2021. I’m guessing that, by now, that figure is much higher. 

In Scotland, between September 2021 and September 2022, 3,717 Citizen Advice Bureau clients owed a total of £12.7 million for unpaid council tax bills. The average debt is £3,420, which is almost three times the average council tax bill in 2022/23 of £1,238. Citizens Advice Scotland is warning the cost of living crisis could lead to people prioritising costs like and falling even further behind on council tax bills.

Myles Fitt, CAS Financial Health spokesperson said: “Council tax debt is the biggest debt issue the Citizens Advice network deals with and these figures suggest the cost of living crisis could see an explosion in the levels of arrears across the country as people prioritise expenditure for immediate cost of living needs.”

I’ve been to court for non-payment of council tax on a few occasions and the councils were vicious! Keen to try and get me for ‘wilful neglect’ (i.e. deliberately withholding payment), it eventually turned out that, with four young kids at the time, I simply couldn’t afford to pay. To get them off my back, I’d agree to pay a monthly amount (which I also couldn’t afford) and then quickly fall behind with payments and the whole misery-go-round would start again! 

Two days ago, I had a threatening email from the council. I decided to call them. A very nice woman picked up. She was working from home, she told me, and asked me to excuse the racket in the background - her teenage daughter was watching something on TV. A few minutes into the conversation, she shouted at her daughter to turn down the volume. We then proceeded to chat about how tough the last three years have been. She said that, like me, she’d gone through the untimely death of her dad and that she herself was in debt. We agreed that it had been difficult for most normal people since March 2020. 

I told her that I was doing better now in terms of income and was hoping to pay off a few debts. I said completing an income/expenditure form was near impossible for me as my income was irregular and sporadic. She asked me a few general questions about my employment status and said that would suffice and to forget about the form. 

It was good to talk to someone so empathetic: in the past, the council officials I’ve dealt with have been robotic at best, psychopathic at worst. Is this new approach being adopted by councils in general or was it just this particular worker who was being understanding? 

In response to this woman’s empathy, I suddenly felt for her too. I commented on how difficult it must be for her, having to chase people all day long, people who just weren’t in a position to pay. She said it was pretty demoralising being seen as the enemy. We discussed how the word ‘recovery’ once had positive connotations but was now a word that sent people running in the opposite direction, especially when paired with the word ‘team’! 

Barely realising it, I was sucked in by her niceness and agreed to pay a small amount every month towards the alleged debt. We agreed it was the best way to keep the council off my back. After the arrangement was set up, we both felt quite relieved. 

Before we finished the call, she admitted that, out of the hundreds of emails she’d sent out that day, I was the only person who’d responded. That told me a lot - that the vast majority of people in debt can’t deal with it and  feel they have no choice but to keep their worried heads buried firmly in the metaphorical sand. And who can blame them? 

If it’s any consolation though, our creditors - and I have many - seem to be more reasonable these days my mortgage company has been suddenly very understanding too; more sympathetic to our personal situations; more ready to help. Is this some kind of ruse? I don’t know. But, despite my reservations about council tax in general, I feel better for facing up to the wolves that seem to be forever howling at my door. 

The nice lady at the council said she’d call me again in a year. Who knows what the world will be like then but hopefully, with extra empathy and less anxiety, it’ll be a better place. 

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