Cries for help over council tax debt rise

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There has been a massive rise in the number of people seeking help with council tax debt.

As arrears in payments to the local authority continue to mount, the issue has become the top reason for people seeking help with financial issues from Citizens’ Advice.

In the past council tax has been frozen but there has been an increase and last year it was the main debt area for people coming in to Citizens’ Advice

Sandra Traynor

The hike coincides with bills going up after several years of a freeze under the council’s Deal.

The organisation has revealed that between January and March this year, 460 people sought advice on council tax debt, rising 77 per cent from 260 people during the same period last year.

Sandra Traynor, operations manager for Wigan Borough Citizens’ Advice, said: “In the past council tax has been frozen but there has been an increase and last year it was the main debt area for people coming in to Citizens’ Advice.

“The main reasons people blamed were welfare reform issues: people moving onto monthly benefits like universal credit and things like the bedroom tax and everyone paying a percentage of council tax.”

It was recently revealed that the borough council is owed a massive £19.5m in unpaid council tax, after a response obtained by the Evening Post under the Freedom Of Information Act.

That was a cumulative total of the arrears owed since council tax was introduced in 1993-94.

The amount outstanding at the end of the 2015-16 financial year was three per cent higher than the previous year, when £18.9m was owed.

Council tax benefit was scrapped in 2013 and replaced with a council tax reduction, which is available to some people who are on a low income or claim benefits.

In Wigan, there are currently 28,732 claimants, who receive reductions of between 69p and £2,386.76.

Other welfare changes have been introduced, with universal credit being rolled out.

Miss Traynor says this will see people receiving benefits monthly, rather than fortnightly, and they will need to look at how they budget.

Citizens’ Advice offers a range of support for people seeking advice with council tax arrears.

There are specialist debt advisers who can help with budgeting, bailiffs, energy bills and other issues.

Miss Traynor said: “Financial literacy is a big thing, so we help people with their money, usually knowing what is a priority debt, what is a non-priority debt and if they have several debts, looking at if they have money they can spread between creditors.

“It’s looking at the whole debt package.”

Drop-in sessions are held on weekday mornings at the Citizens’ Advice branches in Wigan and Leigh and a helpline can be called on 0300 330 1153.

Wigan Council said that it was regretfully having to put up council tax by two per cent in April in a bid to plug adult care social services budgets at the insistence of then Chancellor George Osborne.