Uncollected council tax for region £51m last year

Council bosses have come under fire after it emerged that £51m of council tax went uncollected in the eastern region last year.Unclaimed council tax deficit £51m in the red

Council bosses have come under fire after it emerged that £51m of council tax went uncollected in the eastern region last year.

And although the region as a whole bucked the national trend by reducing its shortfall by £840,000, many East Anglian authorities saw their deficits rise during 2006-2007, according to a survey by public services union GMB.

Of the 48 authorities in the eastern survey, Waveney District Council came bottom with more than £2m of unpaid bills - £409,000 more than the previous year's total - making it the least improved authority in the east.

Norwich City Council's collection rate also slumped, as its deficit grew by £225,000 since 2005-2006, while Great Yarmouth Borough Council was the only authority in Norfolk to improve, pulling in an extra £31,000 of council tax during the same period.

The figures prompted concerns from campaigners and taxpayers that services could be put at risk by accounting inefficiencies, but council chiefs insisted reserves were in place to cover the unpaid bills and promised tougher action against those who refused to pay.

Waveney said the £2m hole in its £85m operating budget would be covered by reserve funds in the short-term, but agreed this was not sustainable over a longer period.

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Bruce Provan, portfolio holder for revenues, benefits and housing management, said: “Waveney District Council has already made it very clear that performance in this area was not satisfactory and having publicised our intentions earlier this year, we are now well into a robust improvement programme that is producing real and unequivocal results.

“Having achieved a council tax collection rate of 95.2pc in 2006-2007, we set an improvement target of 97.5pc for 2007-2008 and, at the end of July, we are delighted to actually be ahead of that challenging figure.

“There are many reasons for this, but primarily we are coming down hard on those who refuse to pay, issuing no fewer than 4,564 court summonses during the past year.”

“Non-payment of council tax is a burden on all those who do pay and we take collection very seriously.”

But Reg Hartles, chairman of the Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk group, said: “Obviously this amount is so significant that one would hope they are doing the maximum possible to recover it.

“It's of concern to us. It's such a

large amount, you cannot put that aside and forget about it.

Norwich City Council spokesman Lynette Day said that although the £1.6m of uncollected funds represented about 1pc of the authority's £150m operating budget, it would have no impact on city services.

She said that all councils would budget for a collection deficit and that they would be boosted by revenue from new homes built after the budget had been set.

“Our aim is to recover the majority of this shortfall,” she said.

“However, even if the money could not be recovered it would have no impact on frontline services or knock-on cost affect to the taxpayer. In the short term it would be met by the council reserves, while our longer term strategy is a targeted campaign to improve our collection rates.

“Where we do identify persistent non-payers, we will continue to take whatever action is necessary to recover the debt and since April we have taken one person to court for non-payment of council tax resulting in a prison sentence.”

An EDP survey into council efficiency also showed that, of the authorities who have not transferred homes to housing association control, Waveney also had the highest proportion of vacant council houses and the largest percentage of uncollected rent arrears.

A Waveney spokesman said: “The vast majority of the empty properties are sheltered housing schemes, which people do not want any more.

“We are currently undertaking a wide-ranging review of the future of sheltered housing in our district.”

Nationwide, the total amount of uncollected council tax was £760m - an increase of £19.4m on the previous year.

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