New statistics on council tax collection in England have been very revealing. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is council tax going the same way as the poll tax did?

While councils are collecting more council tax than a year ago, arrears are mounting; are we seeing the beginnings of a trend that mirrors that of the poll tax?

In recent days, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has released new statistics on council tax collection in England. Covering the period April 2013 to March 2014, it is the first official data which allows us to assess the impacts of the localisation of Council Tax Support (CTS). A headline finding was that while more than £1bn extra was collected, in-year arrears increased by £145m – up more than 20 per cent on the previous year. Using data collected by NPI for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation we have linked these outcomes to the CTS scheme introduced by each council. The findings do not bode well for the future of localised CTS.

From April 2013, local councils across England were given the power to devise their own systems of CTS for working-age adults. It replaced the national system of Council Tax Benefit (CTB) which ensured that the poorest households did not have to pay council tax. The change marked a historic move from a nationally devised system to one of 326 different local schemes in England. Alongside this restructuring, the money provided by central government to fund CTS was cut by 10%. Each council became responsible for devising its own scheme within the reduced budget. The majority of councils chose to pass the cut on to CTS recipients, with the introduction of a ‘minimum payment’, which requires everyone to pay at least some council tax regardless of income, being the most common approach to making up the funding shortfall.

The graph below classifies councils according to the size of the minimum payment each chose to impose, from zero at one end to above 20 per cent at the other. 8.5 per cent is included because it was the maximum a council could set last year and still be eligible for central government’s transitional grant. Each of these groups is then split according to the size of the increase in arrears (between 10 per cent and 25 per cent, 25 per cent to 50 per cent, 50 per cent to 100 per cent).

To see what the graph is showing take, for example, the 97 councils who had no minimum payment. 38 per cent of them saw arrears rise by between a tenth and a quarter, 10 per cent saw a rise of between a quarter and a half while 5 per cent saw a bigger rise still. The other 48 per cent saw either a small rise or a fall. By contrast, among the 43 councils with the largest minimum payments, more than four fifths saw arrears rise by at least a quarter.

(Click on graph to enlarge).

The pattern here is very clear. Councils who chose not to introduce a minimum payment saw a smaller increase in arrears than those who opted for a minimum payment. The larger the minimum payment, the worse the picture becomes. This worsening is seen in both the proportion suffering a rise in arrears (the overall height of each bar) and the average size of the rise (how dark each bar is).

In April 2014, many of the local schemes changed again: 56 councils increased the minimum payment from the year before and a further 15 included one in their scheme design for the first time. In terms of the graph, councils in England are moving to the right. These changes have seen the number of families having to pay council tax for the first time increase by 110,000 to 2.34m. The additional council tax paid compared to the former national system is also higher in the second year at £149, £10 more than in 2013/14.

While councils are collecting more council tax than a year ago, arrears are mounting. The further cuts to CTS made in April 2014, which are not reflected in this year’s data, are likely to see these figures worsen next year. Are we seeing the beginnings of a trend that mirrors that of the poll tax which resulted in growing arrears - and ultimately led to its abolition?
 

Sabrina Bushe is research and communications officer at the New Policy Institute

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era