‘Uncosted wishlist’: Councillors clash over tax relief proposal

Islington full council meeting, 20 September. Photograph: Ed Sheridan.

A debate has blown up between Islington councillors over a planned review of its council tax support scheme (CTSS).

At a 20 September full council meeting, members butted heads over the best possible means of providing support to residents struggling to pay their council tax bill.

Cllr Caroline Russell (Green, Highbury East) proposed a full review of the CTSS in time for the Town Hall’s budget.

She stated that whilst Islington had “laudably” exempted foster carers and care leavers from having to pay, the Town Hall should imitate Camden Council in exempting the borough’s poorest residents from the tax entirely.

Cllr Russell said: “In 2013 the coalition government scrapped council tax benefit and forced councils to implement their own council tax reduction schemes, whilst cutting councils’ budget at the same time by 10 per cent.

“This motion is offered in the spirit of co-operation. I appreciate that Islington has a CTSS that is more generous than many other schemes. We don’t use bailiffs, we don’t pass on costs from summonses – but we are issuing summonses and these are stressful for our residents.

“This year I wanted to draw this borough’s attention to the scheme in Camden to see whether there’s a way to provide relief to those residents who are living on the tightest margins.

“The council currently has 3,880 residents in council tax arrears – that’s 3,880 residents struggling to stay warm and put food on their table, and struggling to pay this bill.”

Islington’s report on the CTSS for 2018/19 states that the government was “wrong” to abolish council tax benefit in 2013.

Under the Town Hall’s scheme, a universal 8.5 per cent reduction to former council tax benefit levels was introduced, alongside a minimum reduction of £100 for older people, with a safety net provided in the form of a resident support scheme for those struggling to pay their bills.

Cllr Andy Hull (Lab, Highbury West), executive member for finance, performance and community safety, said: “Devolution from the Tories almost always means cuts. If Cllr Russell or anyone else wants to propose a policy, they should first make the effort to cost that proposal.

“In terms of making clear what we’re actually doing, I think it’s important to say that our council tax support scheme costs us £21 million and supports 28,635 residents, which is over a quarter of people who have to pay council tax in the borough.

“Basically, Cllr Russell hasn’t bothered to cost her proposal, and I have. It would cost us £1.3m.

“No effort has been made to cost it, and therefore no effort has been made to identify what to cut to fund it.

“And £1.3m represents a lot of social workers and a lot of school meals. Politics is about choices and priorities. People who elect us expect us to make those tough decisions, not to dodge them with uncosted wishlists and unfunded motions.”

The CTSS will be discussed again at Islington’s December full council meeting.