Shake-up of council tax benefit

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Fenland Council is due to discuss a shake-up of council tax benefit (CTB) that could see more than 4,500 people paying more.

The council was proposing to cut the benefit by 20 per cent for those of working age, but this has now been altered to no more than 8.5 per cent, an extra payment of £1.52 per week on average for those receiving 100 per cent CTB benefit.
Fenland has been given new powers by Government to devise its own CTB scheme, taking effect in April 2013. But at the same time, Government is giving less cash for the benefit so councils have to work out how they are going to make savings.
At the Overview and Scrutiny Panel meeting at Fenland Hall on Monday, councillors are due to scrutinise the draft scheme. The decision on the CTB and exemption changes will be made on 20 December 2012 and customers affected will be contacted in January 2013.
Fenland pays out more than £8 million in CTB, which is then claimed back from the Department of Work and Pensions. However, from April, there will be a fixed budget allocation from Government. 
The allocation will see a cut in funding of around 12 per cent for Fenland, leaving a funding shortfall of £1.2 million.
It was proposed that 20 per cent be cut from CTB entitlement for all working age customers, to be taken after the award is calculated using the current system. This means people would have to find, on average, around £3 per week extra. 
However, following consultation and the news that Government would be offering additional funding for the next financial year, Fenland worked out that by lowering the amount cut to 8.5 per cent, they could still cover the funding gap.
This does mean that the CTB scheme for 2014/15 will need to be significantly different, in order to meet the funding pressures that existed before the additional funding was announced.
Consultation on the proposed scheme, prior to the later Government announcement, was carried out with the community over the summer and 74 survey forms were filled in. 
A high proportion of those who took the survey did not agree that everyone, except pensioners, should have to pay some council tax and agreed that vulnerable people, such as the disabled and those with young children, should get more help paying.
Many were unhappy with having to pay more council tax and several said that disabled people should not have to pay extra.
The draft proposal also looks at council tax discounts and exemptions to make up the budget shortfall.
At the moment, empty properties undergoing major repairs can claim one year’s exemption, while empty and unfurnished properties can claim up to six months. Those with second homes can claim a 10 per cent discount on the second property.
The draft scheme would see these exemptions and discounts abolished, saving Fenland just over £500,000.
An additional proposal is to add a 50 per cent council tax premium onto those properties that are long-term empty, generally over six months. There are currently 140 properties in Fenland this would apply to.
No formal consultation is needed for the changes to discounts and exemptions and it could be approved by council at any meeting up to February.
The procedure for the local CTB scheme must go through a lengthier process, including consulting county council, fire and police authorities. Fenland has to formally approve a scheme before January 31. The council hopes to have approval from Cabinet before the end of the year.

Fenland District Council will be consulting on this matter again this month, by contacting those affected directly and having a new survey online from next week.
• What do you think? Is this a good idea or will it make things worse for those already struggling? Put your comments below or Tweet us @fenlandcit