Sheffield Council is being urged to get tough with ‘shirkers’ after Government figures were released showing the amount of unpaid council tax has risen to more than £33 million.
The council has the 37th worst record of 326 local authorities across England and Wales, in terms of average arrears divided across all households, and the highest figure of uncollected council tax in South Yorkshire.
The statistics were greeted with dismay by community groups.
Mick Daniels, chairman of Brushes Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, Firth Park, said: “Why can’t the council get this money back? They must know where these people live.
“The council needs to do something about it – they’re making £50 million of cuts this year.
“Well, here’s £33 million. They could afford to keep Stocksbridge Leisure Centre and Don Valley stadium with that.”
The council tax arrears were criticised by Coun Simon Clement-Jones, Liberal Democrat finance spokesman on Sheffield Council, who said: “Labour politicians like to talk about tax avoidance but locally they’ve allowed council tax shirkers to get away with millions of pounds of unpaid bills.
“Last year, the council’s Government grant was cut by £25 million. This figure is more than matched by the unpaid debts that the council has refused to collect.
“Before cutting libraries and leisure centres, the council should be getting tough with tax shirkers.”
The figures for council tax arrears were released in the House of Commons and cover arrears outstanding at March 31 last year.
Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, accused Labour-run councils of ‘turning a blind eye to tax evasion’.
Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Town Halls can’t afford to leave billions uncollected, especially when some are so quick to plead poverty.”
But Sheffield Council said it is ‘relentlessly pursuing’ people who do not pay up.
Last summer, almost 9,000 people were issued with summonses in Sheffield. More than 1,000 people repaid £780,000 within a month of the letters being issued.
Coun Bryan Lodge, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for finance, said: “Recovering council tax arrears is about striking a balance between being firm with those who ‘won’t pay’ and supporting those who ‘can’t pay’.
“Recovery can take time and in some cases we are not able to recover the council tax debt in the financial year in which it is due.
“This explains a year-on-year rise in overall outstanding debt, but this isn’t just about short term wins.
“Long term, we achieve overall collection rates of 99 per cent. For example, we have just collected over 99 per cent of the 2006/7 debt.
“But Sheffield people have much lower disposable incomes than in Conservative areas. In South Cambridgeshire, which has the lowest arrears, the mean income per person is £600 a week but in Sheffield it’s £470.”
How figures compare against other areas
Sheffield is the worst-performing authority for council tax collection in South Yorkshire, North Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
But the city’s total is only the 37th highest in England and Wales, and many other large cities have greater outstanding sums.
The £33,482,000 of outstanding bills is equivalent to £140 for every single household whether in arrears or not – compared with £12,954,000, or £99 per household in Doncaster; £8,771,000 or £83 per household in Barnsley; £3,991,000, or £82 per household in Chesterfield; £3,829,000 or £76 per household in Bassetlaw; £3,147,000, or £71 per household in North East Derbyshire; and £5,759,000 or £51 per household in Rotherham.
Leeds has one third less outstanding council tax than Sheffield, with £24,554,000 owed, equivalent to £72 per household.
Liverpool is the worst area for council tax arrears, with £113 million owed – some £528 per household.
Other councils with much larger arrears totals than Sheffield include parts of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Nottingham.