Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
A council has ended a pause on chasing people for unpaid council tax during the pandemic.
Vale of Glamorgan council paused attempts to recover unpaid council tax debt after the first coronavirus lockdown began in March last year, due to concerns the economic recession and job losses would leave many unable to pay.
Despite Wales still being under lockdown restrictions, with the accompanying damage to the economy, the Vale council will carry on using the courts to recover council tax debt, with the first hearing scheduled for March 10.
That court date was due to be held on Thursday, January 14, but the latest level-four lockdown caused it to be postponed for two months.
The Vale council restarted attempts to recover council tax debt in September, but the delay for the first court date is likely due to the long process of debt recovery: involving threatening letters and summons before court hearings are held.
At the end of November, the council had collected about £1.1 million less council tax than the previous year, partly due to some residents deferring their payments, according to Carys Lord, head of finance.
In a report to cabinet, which met on Monday, January 11, Ms Lord said: “The recovery process has been recommenced, with the first court date scheduled. Information is being provided to Welsh Government on a regular basis regarding this issue.”
But the Vale has a “bad reputation” for dealing with people who can’t pay their council tax, according to Councillor Ian Johnson, leader of the Plaid Cymru group on the Vale council.
Freedom of information requests revealed two years ago the Vale council was the second highest in Britain for jailing people who don’t pay their council tax. The law in Wales has since changed, meaning people can no longer be imprisoned for non-payment.
Cllr Johnson said: “The impact of Covid has been widely felt, and there has been an increase in the number of families unable to pay their council tax.
“However, councils shouldn’t pursue people through the courts unnecessarily, causing fear and frustration for families making tough decisions about heating and eating.
“In previous years, the Vale of Glamorgan has got itself a bad reputation and was the worst in Wales for jailing local people for non-payment of council tax. I hope the Vale council will be responsible, and give the right support to people in financial distress, rather than make that distress worse.
“Councils across Wales are all likely to be facing a reduction in the council tax collected. If it’s the same across Wales, it should be an issue for Welsh Government and the Welsh Local Government Association, so councils don’t lose out on money for services through no fault of their own.”
A Vale of Glamorgan council spokesman said: “Following the national lockdown introduced in March, and the impact that had on the economy, the council decided to suspend recovery action in relation to council tax. We also offered residents the opportunity to defer payment of their April and May instalments where their circumstances required.
“When lockdown restrictions were relaxed in September, recovery action restarted. This includes the use of enforcement agents, though such an approach is always a last resort.
“It is used to gather council tax, an income vital to the delivery of council services, in situations where customers have persistently defaulted on payments and rejected all other attempts at resolution.”