Council Tax

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Council Tax is the system of local taxation used in England,[1] Scotland[2] and Wales[3] to part fund the services provided by local government in each country. It was introduced in 1993 by the Local Government Finance Act 1992, as a successor to the unpopular Community Charge, which briefly replaced the older system of domestic rates; these changes were never applied to Northern Ireland, which continues to use a system of domestic rates. The basis for the tax is residential property, with discounts for single occupants. As of 2011, the average annual levy on a property in England was £1,196.[4]

Organisation[edit]

Council Tax is collected by the local authority (known as the collecting authority). However, it may consist of components (precepts) levied and redistributed to other agencies or authorities (each known as a precepting authority).

Collecting authorities[edit]

The collecting authorities are the councils of the districts of England, principal areas of Wales and council areas of Scotland, i.e. the lowest tier of local government aside from parishes and communities.

Precepting authorities[edit]

The precepting authorities are councils from other levels of local government such as a county or parish councils and other agencies. In metropolitan counties where there is no county council, the joint boards are precepting authorities. There may be precepting authorities for special purposes which cover an area as small as a few streets or as large as an entire county.

Strategic authorities Greater London Authority, English county councils, Greater Manchester Combined Authority
Joint boards Passenger transport executives, police authorities, fire authorities
Public-owned utilities Scottish Water
Lowest-tier authorities Civil parishes in England
Special purpose authorities National park authorities, Olympic Delivery Authority

These all set their precepts independently. Each of the levying authorities sets a precept (total amount) to be collected for households in their area. This is then divided by the number of nominal Band D properties in the authority's area (county, district, national park, etc.) to reach the Band D amount.

How Council Tax is spent[edit]

Although it is the only tax which is set by local government in Great Britain, the Council Tax ostensibly contributes only a small proportion (25%, on average) of local government revenue. The majority ostensibly comes from central government funding, either as grants, or in the form of business rates which are collected centrally and redistributed to local authorities.

Councils often plead that they have to raise Council Tax by huge amounts because its cuts to central government funding have left them with shortfalls, and they argue that Council Tax must be raised disproportionately, to compensate for this, because it makes up such a small portion of their income in the first place

This is, however, something of an illusion. A very large portion of central government grants to local authorities is used for funding schools; this dedicated schools grant (DSG) essentially just passes straight through local authority accounts. In some cases this can even be nearly half the entire income of the authority.[5]

Some councils report social housing rents as income, though these are ringfenced by law, into a Housing Revenue Account, and can only be used for maintaining the social housing stock. Similarly, many councils treat traffic fines, and parking charges, as if they were general income, despite them being dedicated by law to funding parking services and road maintenance. Councils also receive grants to fund housing benefit payments, but a number portray this, in their council tax marketing, as if it was part of their general income.

The remaining income, which is often almost entirely derived from business rates, and council tax, typically on a close to 50:50 basis, funds all other local government functions: the police, fire service, recycling, refuse collection / removal, council leisure centres, park and ride schemes, maintenance of parks and open spaces, street cleaning, subsidising of public transport, tourism, museums, environmental health and food safety (for example, in pubs, restaurants, and shops), planning services, support for voluntary groups, meals on wheels, facilities for young people, social care, adapting homes for disabled people, play centres for children, cctv installation, sports facilities, issuing taxi licences, flood defences, and many others.

The provision of a significant proportion of these services is stipulated by central government via statute: Local councils are obliged by law to provide these services. The remainder, however, are fairly discretionary, and are determined by the local council's whims.

Since 2013, a portion of business rates has been retained locally, the remainder continues to be pooled centrally and redistributed; however, the amount redistributed to each council, and retained locally, is now relatively fixed (though it differs between councils), and is initially based on the historic redistribution levels. Consequently, if a council fails to manage the local business environment well, council tax will need to rise to make up a shortfall in council income; conversely if they are successful managers of the local economy, providing the same expenditure on services can be achieved with lower council tax.

Calculation[edit]

Each dwelling is allocated to one of eight bands coded by letters A to H (A to I in Wales) on the basis of its assumed capital value (as of 1 April 1991 in England and Scotland, 1 April 2003 in Wales). Newly constructed properties are also assigned a nominal 1991 (2003 for Wales) value. Each local authority sets a tax rate expressed as the annual levy on a Band D property inhabited by two liable adults. This decision automatically sets the amounts levied on all types of households and dwellings. The nominal Band D property total is calculated by adding together the number of properties in each band and multiplying by the band ratio. So 100 Band D properties will count as 100 nominal Band D properties, whereas 100 Band C properties will count as 89 nominal Band D properties. Each collecting authority then adds together the Band D amounts for their area (or subdivisions of their area in the case, for example, of civil parish council precepts) to reach a total Band D council tax bill. To calculate the council tax for a particular property a ratio is then applied. A Band D property will pay the full amount, whereas a Band H property will pay twice that. Note there is no upper limit for band H. This means that in reality, someone who lives in a multimillion mansion, will only pay 3 times more than someone in a bedsit which falls into Band A.

Revaluation[edit]

The government had planned to revalue all properties in England in 2007 (the first revaluations since 1993) but, in September 2005, it was announced that the revaluation in England would be postponed until "after the next election".[6] At the same time, the terms of reference of the Lyons Inquiry were extended and the report date pushed out to December 2006 (subsequently extended to 2007).[7] In Wales, tax bills based on the property revaluations done using 2003 prices were issued in 2005. Because of the surge in house prices over the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than a third of properties in Wales found themselves in a band higher than under the 1991 valuation. Some properties were moved up three or even four bands with consequent large increases in the amount of council tax demanded. Some properties were moved into new Band I at the top of the price range. Only 8% of properties were moved down in bands.

However, a large shift of properties between bands will cause a shift in the allocation of the charge between bands, and the tax levied for each particular band will then drop, as the total amount collected will remain the same for each authority (see 'calculation of amount' above). Between the wholesale revaluations, a major change to a property (such as an extension, or some major blight causing loss of value) can trigger a revaluation to a new estimate of the value the property would have reached if sold in 1991. If such a change would result in an increase in value, then re-banding will only take effect when the property is sold or otherwise transferred.

Current bands[edit]

In England, the council tax bands are as follows :

Band Value[8] Ratio[9] Ratio as % Average[10]
A up to £40,000 6/9 67% £845
B £40,001 to £52,000 7/9 78% £986
C £52,001 to £68,000 8/9 89% £1,127
D £68,001 to £88,000 9/9 100% £1,268
E £88,001 to £120,000 11/9 122% £1,550
F £120,001 to £160,000 13/9 144% £1,832
G £160,001 to £320,000 15/9 167% £2,113
H £320,001 and above 18/9 200% £2,536

In Wales, the bands were re-set on 1 April 2005 by the National Assembly for Wales, based on 2003 valuations. In addition to revising the band boundaries upwards, an extra band was added.

Band Value[11] Pre-2005 value[8] Ratio[9] Ratio as %
A up to £44,000 up to £30,000 6/9 67%
B £44,001 to £65,000 up to £39,000 7/9 78%
C £65,001 to £91,000 up to £51,000 8/9 89%
D £91,001 to £123,000 up to £66,000 9/9 100%
E £123,001 to £162,000 up to £90,000 11/9 122%
F £162,001 to £223,000 up to £120,000 13/9 144%
G £223,001 to £324,000 up to £240,000 15/9 167%
H £324,001 to £424,000 £240,001 and above 18/9 200%
I £424,001 and above 21/9 233%

In Scotland, the current bands are

Band Value[8] Ratio[9] Ratio as %
A up to £27,000 6/9 67%
B £27,001 to £35,000 7/9 78%
C £35,001 to £45,000 8/9 89%
D £45,001 to £58,000 9/9 100%
E £58,001 to £80,000 11/9 122%
F £80,001 to £106,000 13/9 144%
G £106,001 to £212,000 15/9 167%
H £212,001 and above 18/9 200%

Rates[edit]

Geographic variation[edit]

Due to the different make-up of each council area, council tax rates can vary quite a bit between different local authorities. Though this isn't so noticeable in parts of the country like Scotland, where band D rates in 2011 varied from a low of £1,024 (in the Western Isles) to a high of £1,230 (in Aberdeen), the effect can be more pronounced in parts of England. For example, the 2008 rates in London had this sort of distribution (note that this table compares the rates with the average in 2006, not 2008):[12]

Council Area Band D Rate  % of 2006 Avg As at
Westminster £681.68 54% 2008
Hammersmith & Fulham £862.77 64% 2008
Kensington & Chelsea £1,031.15 81% 2008
Lambeth £1,187.23 94% 2008
Islington £1,219.40 96% 2008
Average £1,268 100% 2006
Ealing £1,344.10 106% 2008
Croydon £1,357.64 107% 2008
Hounslow £1,394.53 110% 2008
Richmond £1,490.60 118% 2008

Variation over time[edit]

Under the Labour government of Tony Blair, average Council Tax rates rose dramatically above inflation,[13][14] creating a degree of resentment by residents.

The subsequent Coalition government have made an effort to get councils to freeze council tax rates, gradually eroding the above inflation increases via ordinary inflation. This has been achieved by offering councils large grants in return for freezing their council tax rate; for example, in some years these grants were equal to the amount that would have been gained by a 1% council tax rise.

In addition, the law has been changed, so that councils cannot increase council tax by an amount higher than a cap specified by the government (currently 2%), without holding a local referendum to approve the change; no council has invoked such a referendum, but many have raised council tax as close to the cap as they can get without passing it(for example, by 1.99%).

Although elements of local government policy is a devolved matter, the Barnet Formula leads the Scottish Government to acquire funding somewhat in accordance with central government priorities. Subsequently, by 2013, the Scottish Government froze council tax rates for the fourth time.

Reductions[edit]

Exemptions[edit]

Some dwellings are automatically exempt from paying Council Tax; these are officially organised into a number of distinct classes. Most of these exemption classes only apply when the property is completely unoccupied; these are as follows:

Class Description
B Furnished dwellings owned by a charity (up to six months).
D Where the previous occupant(s) has been imprisoned, except where they are imprisoned for non-payment of Council Tax.
E Where the previous occupant(s) has moved into a hospital or care home, and the dwelling had been their sole or main residence.
F Where the previous occupant(s) are dead
G A dwelling where occupation is prohibited by law (note that the exemption will still cease if squatters occupy the property)
H Where the future occupant would be a minister(s) of any religion.
I Where the previous occupant(s) has moved elsewhere in order to receive personal care, and the dwelling had been their sole or main residence.
J Where the previous occupant(s) has moved elsewhere in order to provide personal care to a 3rd party, and the dwelling had been their sole or main residence.
K Where the owner is a student, who last lived in the dwelling as their main home.
L Where the dwelling has been repossessed by a mortgage lender.
Q Where the person who would ordinarily be liable is prevented from making use of the property, because it is with a trustee in bankruptcy.
R An empty caravan pitch, or a boat mooring not in use.
T A granny flat which, due to planning restrictions, cannot be let separately from other parts of the same single overall property.

The remaining exemption classes apply not only when the property is unoccupied, but also when certain categories of people are living there:

Class Description
M A hall of residence provided predominantly for the accommodation of students.
N A dwelling which is occupied only by students, the foreign spouses of students, or school and college leavers.
O Armed forces' accommodation.
P A granny flat within a single overall property, within which at least one person who would otherwise be liable has a relevant association with a visiting force.
S A dwelling where all occupants are aged under 18.
U A dwelling occupied only by a person, or persons, who is or are severely mentally impaired and who would otherwise be liable to pay council tax, or on exclusion of such occupants would be in exemption class N.
V A dwelling in which at least one person who would otherwise be liable is a diplomat.
W A granny flat occupied by a dependant relative of a person in another dwelling within the same single overall property.

X a dwelling occupied by a minister(s) of any religion (see H above)

Other classes existed historically:

Class Date abolished Description
A 1 April 2013 Vacant dwellings where major repair works or structural alterations are required, underway or recently complete (up to twelve months).
C 1 April 2013 A vacant dwelling (i.e. empty and substantially unfurnished) (up to six months).

Local Authorities now have the discretion to apply their own level of discount to dwellings in these former categories. However, many choose not to, and once a property has been vacant for over 2 years, they have the right to levy a surcharge of up to an additional 50% on the standard council tax rate for the property.

Statutory Discounts[edit]

Low occupancy[edit]

A fixed discount, currently set at 25%, is available when there are fewer than two residents; this is known as the Single Person Discount. Though it is often concluded that the full Council Tax charge must therefore be based on two or more adults being resident at a property, this is not strictly true.

Some people are automatically disregarded when counting the number of residents for this purpose, such as full-time students. The legislation also provides that, to count as a resident of a property, an individual should have the property as their sole or main residence; case law has established that no single test may be used to determine whether this condition is met.[15]

As part of the National Fraud Initiative, every other year, the Audit Commission analyses meta data deriving from council tax accounts together with the full electoral register to produce lists of people it believes should be subjected to an investigation on the basis that there is a risk that a discount is being received when an adult who does not fall to be disregarded is actually resident in the dwelling.[16]

Disabled occupancy[edit]

If a property has been adapted to meet the needs of a disabled occupant, then, after applying in writing, and provided the adaptations are of a certain extent, the property will be rebanded to the band immediately below the property's normal council tax band. In effect, the dwelling is treated as if its market value has been lowered by the adaptations.

Residents of properties in the lowest council tax band can receive this reduction. They will be placed into a Band Z (The band below A)

Discretionary Reductions[edit]

Under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, Local Councils were given powers to create new deduction rules for their council tax. These rules are now officially known as Council Tax Reduction schemes, though many Councils market them to residents as Council Tax Support; the choice to market the rules as a benefit, rather than a tax cut, may be an ideological one.

These powers are restricted by the Act; the rules cannot be arbitrary, ad-hoc, or targeted at specific individuals. Since these powers replace the former statutory rebate schemes, the government has also restricted the councils from increasing, by more than a certain amount, the net Council Tax bill for any individual who previously received a rebate. In particular people in receipt of the Guarantee Credit element of Pension Credit must continue to receive a 100% discount (that is, a council tax bill of £0).

These powers took effect in April 2013. The consequent reduction rules vary from one local authority to another, with some councils keeping the same rules as the rebate schemes they replace, while others took the opportunity to inflict a small level of tax on people with low incomes.[17]

Former statutory rebates[edit]

Historically, a number of statutory Council Tax rebates existed. These were applied to the Council Tax bill in advance of the bill being delivered to the claimant, effectively creating a discount. However, this was not merely an overly-bureaucratic discount; the rebate money was provided by central government, but the Council Tax bill it rebated was paid to the local authority.

Though the funding was provided by central government, the schemes were administered by the local authority responsible for producing the relevant Council Tax bill. Originally using paper application forms, local authorities began to use a telephone-based application process, in the last few years of the rebate schemes. Under these latter application schemes, claimants would often contact the responsible central government department, who would then forward the details to the local authority.

Since 2013, explicit Council Tax discounts have been provided instead. The local authorities have been given the right to choose their own rules for the discounts, within certain bounds, but many local authorities choose to use similar or identical rules to the former statutory rebate schemes.

Second Adult Rebate[edit]

Many individuals share their dwelling with members of separate households, who would ordinarily be expected to pay a share of the council tax bill. However, in some cases, it would not be reasonable to expect those other residents to be able to pay a full share; to assist individuals sharing with those residents, a rebate (Second Adult Rebate) was available, as follows:

  • 25%, if each of the second adults are in receipt of one of
    • Income-Based Jobseekers Allowance, or
    • Income Support, or
    • Income-Related Employment and Support Allowance, or
    • Pension Credit
  • otherwise, it is based on the combined gross weekly income of all the second adults:
    • 15%, if under £175
    • 7.5%, if between £175 and £227.99
    • nothing, if £228 or above

Council Tax Benefit[edit]

Council Tax Benefit was a means-tested rebate that potentially rebated 100% of a claimant's council tax bill. The rebate would be reduced by a fifth of any qualifying income above a certain level; benefits did not qualify for this calculation, but most other income did. In effect, Council Tax Benefit was a rebate for people with low incomes.

The claimant could not be awarded both Council Tax Benefit and Second Adult Rebate; only the higher of the two, in relation to the claimant's circumstances, would be awarded.

Non-dependant deductions[edit]

A non-dependant is a person that the claimant is sharing accommodation with but is not a member of their own household (that is, not a partner, dependant, etc.), such as lodgers or joint tenants. Since it would be reasonable to expect non-dependants to contribute towards the Council Tax bill, Council Tax Benefit was reduced so that it only covered the claimant's hypothetical portion of the Council Tax bill.

However, no reduction was imposed if the claimant or their partner needed substantial care; this qualification was met if, and only if, the claimant was:

  • Registered blind, or
  • In receipt of
    • the Care Component (any rate) of Disability Living Allowance, or
    • Severe Disablement Allowance, or
    • Exceptionally Severe Disablement Allowance

No contribution was expected from non-dependant who would themselves qualify for Council Tax benefit, were not counted towards the number of residents liable for council tax (for example, due to being a student), were normally resident elsewhere, or were not adults. But the remaining non-dependants were each hypothetically expected to contribute the following amounts:

  • £2.30 if in part-time work, otherwise
  • £2.30 if weekly income is under £178
  • £4.60 if weekly income is between £178 and £305.99
  • £5.80 if weekly income is between £306 and £381.99
  • £6.95 if weekly income is over £382

Council Tax Benefit was therefore reduced by an amount equal to these hypothetically expected contributions.

Housing Benefit (Northern Ireland)[edit]

In Northern Ireland, where the old Rates system is still in place instead of Council Tax, a rebate scheme existed for Rates, that was similar in design to Council Tax Benefit. Confusingly, this was named Housing Benefit, despite another Housing Benefit also existing there to assist with rent payments.

Administration of Housing Benefit for Rates was split between two organisations depending on whether the claimant was renting or was an owner-occupier; Tenants could claim both kinds of Housing Benefit, while owner-occupiers could only get Housing Benefit for rates

  • Tenants had to apply to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive regardless of whether they rented from a private landlord, from the NIHE itself, or from a housing association.[18]
  • Owner-occupiers had to apply to the Land & Property Services agency[19]

Criticism[edit]

Of the principle[edit]

Council Tax is criticised[citation needed] for perceived unfairness in not taking into account the ability to pay (see regressive taxation[weasel words]). These critics[specify] point out that while the capital value of the property in which a person lives might give some indication of the relative wealth of the individual, it does not necessarily relate to current income[importance?].[citation needed] Council-tax advocates respond that those on low incomes can apply for council tax benefits which can significantly (or totally) reduce the amount the applicant pays. This argument presumes, of course, that the system of council tax benefit is itself a satisfactory scheme. In particular, not everyone who is eligible to benefit will make a claim.

Critics also claim[citation needed] that Council Tax has a disproportionate impact on renters, or those occupying part-owned social housing.[citation needed] They are paying tax according to the value of a property that they may not have been able to afford to buy or even rent at market rate[importance?].

Equally, the tax isn't actually particularly proportionate even to property values[importance?]. A band H property will pay at most three times as a band A, even though the value of the property may be ten or more times higher[importance?].

While many argue the tax may have regressive characteristics, supporters point out that there is a significant means tested benefit regime in place which offers rebates to those on low incomes. This has the effect of making the tax less regressive. Furthermore, in comparison to its predecessor - the Community Charge - council tax is straightforward to collect with in year collection rates averaging 97% in England.[20]

Alternatives[edit]

A wide range of alternatives to Council Tax have been suggested, from a charge based on service use by each individual, to a flat per-capita rate, to a local income tax,

Administering a system of local income tax independently of the national tax system would impose significant costs for government and business, significantly eroding the value gained from it as a source of local government income. Conversely, administering a local income tax as part of the national tax system would leave local taxation entirely under the control of central government, and there is little reason not to centralise it entirely.

This leads to the obvious alternative of allocate all funding directly from central government finances - already around 75% of local authority income is ostensibly provided via central government. The biggest argument against this is that it removes fiscal independence from local government, making them mere service providers. However, since local government in the UK has no constitutional guarantee, and is shaped entirely by the whim of central government, some critics argue that local authorities can never be independent of central government.

Part of the reason for criticism of council tax is the sheer size of council tax bills. Though the Coalition government have frozen council tax levels in many local authorities, they remain quite sizeable, and any unfairness is more noticeable than it would be if council tax bills were only a few pounds each month. This leads to another alternative: transferring control of the more expensive services directly to central government, and leaving local authorities only needing small amounts of money for their remaining functions.

Of historic bills[edit]

In Scotland, criticism has been levied not so much at the principle of the tax, but at its debt collection arrangements:[21] Community Charge and Council Tax debts can be pursued up to 20 years later - few people will have conserved their payment receipts for such a long time and as such are unable to prove that they paid. John Wilson MSP presented an Enforcement of Local Tax Arrears (Scotland) Bill on 19 March 2010 in order to try to reduce this collection time from 20 to 5 years; in England and Wales Council Tax debt in line with other debts already expires after six years.

An edition of the current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald on 26 January 2007[22] investigated whether millions of homes had been placed in the wrong band in the original 1991 valuation. It was shown that the banding valuations were often done by 'second gear valuations', in other words valuations were often done by driving past homes and allocating bands via a cursory external valuation. The programme followed case studies of a system devised by the presenter Martin Lewis, published on his website in October 2006, who had received thousands back in back payments after appealing their band allocations. This Council Tax Cashback[23] system was said to have the potential to reach millions and received widespread publicity, likely to encourage people to challenge the system.[24][25] There had been no information published on how many have been successful in obtaining a reduced banding until the 22 November 2008 when the Daily Telegraph, in a news article about the campaign by Martin Lewis, stated that in the past year 97,563 properties in England and Wales have been rebanded, with 69,695 of those down-graded.[26]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Communities and Local Government - Council Tax: The Facts
  2. ^ Council Tax in Scotland Scottish Government publications
  3. ^ Council Tax a guide Valuation Office Agency
  4. ^ Council tax levels set by local authorities in England - 2011-12 Communities and local government - figures released 23rd March 2011
  5. ^ Waltham Forest income
  6. ^ Council tax revaluing is shelved, news.bbc.co.uk
  7. ^ Lyons Inquiry Press Notice: 6 December 2006[dead link]
  8. ^ a b c Nominal value as at 1991
  9. ^ a b c The ratio governs the relationship between the bands. For example, a Band B property will pay 78% of the charge set for a Band D property in the same area.
  10. ^ Based on average Band D rate as of 2006
  11. ^ Nominal value as at 2003
  12. ^ Communities and Local Government
  13. ^ BBC-council tax and inflation
  14. ^ BBC-the difference between council tax and inflation
  15. ^ "Williams v Horsham District Council [2004] EWCA Civ 39 (21 January 2004)". Bailii.org. Retrieved 2013-02-05. 
  16. ^ The National Fraud Initiative 2008./2009 Members' Briefing. May 2010. Published by the Audit Commission.
  17. ^ Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor (14 January 2013). "Poorer households face postcode lottery as council tax benefit cuts bite | Money | guardian.co.uk". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2013-02-05. 
  18. ^ < "An introduction to Housing Benefit". Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  19. ^ < "A Guide to Rates: Housing Benefit and Rate Relief". Land & Property Services. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  20. ^ [1][dead link]
  21. ^ Council Tax in Scotland described as 'inherently unfair' by the citizens Advice Bureaux
  22. ^ [2][dead link]
  23. ^ MoneySavingExpert.com. "Council Tax Reclaiming". 
  24. ^ "Millions could be eligible for council tax refund". The Guardian (London). 25 January 2007. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  25. ^ "Owed Tax Handout". The Sun (London). 10 May 2007. [dead link]
  26. ^ Leach, Ben (23 November 2008). "Thousands of households in the wrong council tax banding, it is claimed Nearly 100,000 households have been put in the wrong council tax banding, it has been claimed.". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 30 April 2010. 

External links[edit]