A better way of dealing with council tax arrears

Voluntary community service in action

Local authorities depend on several streams of income for funding, such as council tax and parking fines, apart from central government assistance. Cutbacks caused by austerity policies restrict budgets for front line services and make these alternative revenue sources even more important.

However, making life better in general for citizens is the overarching responsibility of all councils.

Local councils bring in the bailiffs quickly for arrears

Councils have been notorious for chasing council tax arrears with ruthless efficiency through bailiffs, also known as “enforcement officers”.  Citizens Advice provides guidelines on the powers of bailiffs, what they can and cannot do, and also assistance for those struggling with debt.

The majority of people who fall into council tax arrears are financially challenged and the pressure of bailiff action can be immense and extremely stressful. It often results in driving them into the arms of loan sharks, which merely adds more pressure to an already beleaguered family.

How much better it would be if councils offered an option to offset community service work against arrears in cases of genuine hardship. Allied to a programme of education about handling personal finances, the impact would be very positive instead of the current system that heaps pressure on people.

Why can’t parking fines be used for community purposes?

Penalty charges/parking fines and car park charges are a major income stream for local councils and are legally earmarked for local transport and related and infrastructure projects, such as road maintenance and operating subsidised bus services

The numbers are staggering. In 2018/19 the total in England alone came to £963 million profit after operating costs, according to the RAC Foundation.

With central government funding cutbacks and pressure to keep so many vital services operating, there are fears that this money might be used for other purposes.

Ideally, the legal position could be amended, allowing a portion to be set aside for community activities rather than road and transport funding, however difficult this may be in a time of extreme austerity policies that prioritise defunding state services.

Compulsory community service

Compulsory community service is unpaid work carried out for the benefit of the community in general without pay and was introduced in 1972. It’s called Community Payback by the government. A community service order can be handed down by the courts for relatively minor offences, especially for first-time offenders.

These community sentences are often accompanied by restrictions or requirements when the offender displays characteristics such as substance abuse. Read more here.

Local councils employ Youth Offending Teams who engage with young people in trouble with the law and attempt to steer them away from difficulties. They also supervise local community service programmes that are run for payback purposes.

On average it costs local councils around £3,000 to administer a community service order compared with £50,000 a year to house a prisoner according to this BBC article.

Organisations, such as charities, may enlist people whom the courts have assigned to perform community service.

Voluntary community service

Voluntary community service is different. Programmes can be run by schools to provide pupils with a channel to broaden their life experiences and perhaps develop leadership capabilities. This brochure by a Norwich school is a good example of what is possible.

Is there a middle ground – a voluntary alternative to paying fines and penalties?

The Public Purse proposes that a portion of penalty charges for offences such as parking, speeding, failure to pay council tax and so on, should be placed in a central fund that would be used for community betterment.

In addition, people who don’t have the financial resources to pay fines or council tax arrears in a particular month could voluntarily offer to perform community service instead. This seems a better alternative to having bailiffs call on them.

This could be linked to financial skills training in areas such as budgeting and personal finance.

An initiative based on these core principles would deliver much needed relief to thousands of households up and down the country.