Councillor Sarah Hill: It can’t be all her fault

It may be amusing that the Tax Payers Alliance has voted Councillor Sarah Hill the Pin Head of the Month due to inflicting an unnecessary council tax rise of 3.49% on the people of Stoke-on-Trent.

I know we are constantly told that this is a member led council and I am not jumping to her defence, but I do not believe for one minute that this would be Cllr Hill’s proposal, but something forced onto her by the finance officers. Continue reading

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Cabinet Propose Retention of All Children’s Centres

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Cabinet are proposing the retention of all 16 Children’s Centres after listening to public concerns and the 6000 strong petition organised by the Save Our Children Centre’s group headed by Millissa Beydilli.

Whilst the Cabinet are proposing to save the Children’s Centres, the award winning Stoke Speaks Out service, short breaks for the disabled and carers, the Merit Pupil referral service and 24/7 CCTV coverage, they have also confirmed their intention to close several key facilities.

Although the Children’s Centres have been saved Council Leader Mohammed Pervez would give no guarantee that staff jobs would be saved. He also gave an indication that there may be a reorganisation of the Children’s Centres management structure.

The decision to close Shelton and Tunstall pools, Fenton and Burslem Libraries and the Heathside and Eardley Care Homes was also announced.

There is a six month stay of execution for education establishments Ford Green Hall, Etruria Industrial Museum and Stanley Head whilst the council explores the possibility of the transferring them to a community trust or social enterprise.

The future also looks brighter for Meir Community and Education Centre and for Northwood Stadium.

The Meir looks set to retain their community centre after the council leader announced that the council was looking to transfer more services into the popular facility.

The popular service Shopmobility, located at the Potteries Shopping Centre, will also be saved.

Mohammed Pervez confirmed that users have offered to pay for the service and the council are happy to go along with that proposal.

Northwood Stadium is not closing at this stage.

The Future of the City Farm looks bleak however. The Council Leader, Mohammed Pervez confirmed that the council did not consider the farm as a priority and indicated that the council had no statutory obligation to deliver such a service.

The tender to transfer the farm to an independent operator was suspended amidst a dispute over the ownership of the land. Whist the tender is likely to be re-instated at some stage, the feeling is that there would be a lack of interested parties coming forward to take over what was consider by the Guardian Newspaper a top 10 free attraction in the country just a few years ago.

There was also good news for every household in the City.
The Council Leader announced that Council Tax will be frozen for the next year.

The City Council will take up the governments offer a 2.5% grant which will realise £2million to the local authority.

Mohammed Pervez said that this decision was taken because the Cabinet considered that families were already under pressure following the impact of the recent VAT rise to 20%.

In presenting these proposals, the council leader said that he and his cabinet, along with the CEO John van de Laarschot and his officers, had listened to feedback from the public, elected members and members of the City Council’s staff.

Despite today’s announcements it is still expected that 700 staff will leave the employment of the City Council over the next few months through voluntary or compulsory redundancies.

The City Council are facing a gap in funding of £35.6million for the next financial year.

The national coalition government implemented cuts of 8.1% upon the City of Stoke-on-Trent which when the council factored in the reductions in area based and other grant funding, actually resulted in a bigger percentage cut.

Mohammed Pervez was keen to point out that he had pleaded the case that Stoke-on-Trent was a special case with the government but in his words “Ëœthose pleas fell on deaf ears’.

Pervez said that he had written to government on numerous occasions, he had visited London and held talks with a junior minister working in Local Government and Communities Minister Eric Pickles’s team and had joined forces with other authorities namely Blackpool, Blackburn, Hull and Torbay, but to no avail. Stoke-on-Trent was still one of the worse hit areas for cuts in funding.

The council leader also said that this budget consultation had been the most thorough than any before. He and his cabinet claim that they had taken into consideration the feedback from the “ËœLet’s Talk’ consultations and the comments made during his live web debate exclusively on Pits n Pots when making these difficult decisions.

Members of the City council staff had also been given the opportunity to have their say as a part of the “ËœTell John’ exercise held by the CEO John van de Laarschot.

These proposals will now be put in front of all the political groups and presented to all elected members ahead of the Budget Meeting of the Full City Council to be held on the 24th February.

The meeting will be webcast on the Council Website.

After the briefing Council Leader Mohammed Pervez and CEO John van de Laarschot gave their views.

Listen to the audio below.

Councillor’s Concern At Level Of Debt Outstanding To Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Community Voice Councillor Mike Barnes as expressed concerns over the amount of money owed to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Councillor Barnes is outraged at the figure of £49.4million of debt that is outstanding to Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

In a question submitted to the full City Council meeting tomorrow [Thursday].

Councillor Barnes asked:

"Please could you detail the total amount of uncollected debt (debt not written off from previous years including the year 2009/10 owed to the council or which the council is responsible for collection (ie business rates), at the end of the last financial year 2009/10. Please could you break it down into headings – for example – rent arrears, counciltax, business rates, etc
 

The Council’s response is:

The following table shows, as at the 31 March 2010, the total value of the amount to be collected across the various categories of fund, the level of uncollected debt and the level of bad debt provision set a side to offset any debts that are subsequently deemed irrecoverable and are therefore recommended to be written off:

 

Details of total amount of uncollected debt as at 31/03/10
 Value of Debit Raised

£m

Outstanding debt as at 31/03/2010

£m

Bad Debt Provision

31/03/2010

£000’s

Net Debt as at

31/03/2010

£000’s

Council Tax arrears City Council’s element76.014.18.95.2
Council Tax arrears Police’s element0.02.21.40.8
Council Tax arrears Fire’s element0.00.80.50.3
National Non Domestic Rate Arrears 81.09.86.63.1
Housing rent arrears55.02.61.11.5
General Debtors90.019.95.515.5
     
Grand Total 302.049.4  24.026.4

As the table shows, the total net debt (total debt less bad debt provision) across the 4 categories of debt was £26.4m at the end of the 2009/10 financial year. This is against total revenue collectable of £302m, and therefore represents less than 9% of the total revenue due.

 

It is important to stress that for some of the arrears, notably General Debtors, this will be based on a “snap-shot” in time i.e. the balance sheet date and the overall level of debt can vary considerably at any given time e.g. the total debt may include single large sums owed by 1 or 2 debtors that are recovered soon after the debt has been raised.

 

Also, the total level of arrears must be considered against the available bad debt provision, and the City Council has been prudent in setting aside reasonable and appropriate levels of bad debt provision to mitigate against non-recovery. We have of course over the last 2 years experienced the worst economic downturn in a generation, and whilst it is difficult to ascertain definitively the impact this may have had (and continues to have) on the level of arrears, it is almost certain that it will have had some impact. However, it is recognised that greater focus is needed on not only recovering arrears but preventing the arrears in the first place.

Councillor Barnes asked:

What is being done to secure recovery of this debt?

The Council responded:

There are various streams of work underway to recover and reduce the level of arrears across the various debt categories. Of particular note is the intervention work currently underway within the Revenues and Benefits Service, which is currently in the “re-design phase” and which is incorporating a focused piece of work on debt reduction and recovery.

Whilst this work will continue for some time, a significant amount of effort has already been invested in tackling debt over the last 18 months and some specific examples of the work that has been undertaken are as follows:

Council Tax

 

Prior to 2008 the focus of the Council Tax Service was on achieving the Council tax in-year collection target. At the end of each year, any uncollected debt was given a lower priority and over time this debt increased with little management action taken to recover it or write off un-collectable amounts (and this has been the case for other types of debt).

 

A dedicated team was established early in 2008 with a focus on tackling and reducing former year’s arrears, and this was successful in putting in place measures to recover almost £1m of debt.

 

The revenues team has also made a number of changes to its processes and procedures with the aim of simplifying the way in which customers can make payments and of strengthening the Councils debt recovery arrangements:

 

  • Payers now have a much greater choice of payment date i.e. any day of the month – previously they could only pay on certain days within the month and all customers now have the option of paying weekly

 

  • We have introduced a paperless Direct Debit system which means that the Direct Debit is set up with the customer over the phone or counter, rather than sending out a mandate and inputting information once returned

 

  • Money matter surgeries take place two afternoon’s per week with the Citizens Advice Bureau

 

  • Information is sent to customers at the summons stage, to encourage them to set up an instalment agreement to pay their arrears over an appropriate timeframe

 

  • The Council has implemented a “forced sales policy” on empty homes, with the sale proceeds being used to clear outstanding council tax liability.

 

  • Training has been provided to the Call Centre and front-line staff enabling them to offer more flexible payment terms to suit customer needs.

 

  • Training has also been provided to internal departments and external organisations to increase their knowledge on discounts and exemptions

 

  • Approximately 10 cases were taken through the committal process last year; the first ones for four years.

Housing Rents

 

The way in which the authority collects housing rents is currently under review as part of the Revenue and Benefit Service intervention.  This intervention will include a full review of processes and procedures associated with rent payment and recovery of arrears.

Before the intervention began a complete review of the rent arrears process had been undertaken and timescales for contacting tenants were reduced so that tenants are aware at the earliest opportunity that they need to make arrangements to pay their rent. 

Improved management information is now being extracted from the housing rents system and this is being used to investigate the reasons why tenants get into rent arrears.  There will always be a small percentage of tenants who will not pay their rent and it is essential that the appropriate recovery action is carried out as swiftly as possible.  Early identification, together with providing support and advice particularly around benefit issues needs to be provided at all stages for those who genuinely cannot afford to pay their rent.  Benefit Services are currently carrying out a benefit take-up exercise targeted at council tenants who have rent arrears and are not currently claiming housing benefit to assess their individual circumstances.

 

 

A comprehensive examination of former tenant debts is also underway to identify any cases which have little or no prospect of being recovered (for example where the tenant has deceased) these will be written off and reported in accordance with Financial Regulations.  A balanced judgement needs to be made on the costs of collection of these former tenant cases.  Options for taking action in the County Court will be investigated to evaluate whether the costs of taking such action would be cost effective.  It may require a review of the current policy and provision for bad and doubtful debts for former tenant arrears.

Councillor Barnes asked:

How much debt has been written off across all departments and accounts (eg HRA) in the last five years?"

 

The council responded:

 
  

 

Write offs
 2005/062006/072007/082008/092009/10Total
       
Council Tax 248,416304,73888,01256,3313,814,7724,512,269
NNDR1,154,813298,127433,7070519,3052,405,952
General debtors519,965656,124173,797110,07791,9091,551,872
HRA rent arrears146,324130,979136,534-8,158218,039623,718
HRA other173,63029,88294,03700297,549
       
 2,243,1481,419,850926,087158,2504,644,0259,391,360

As previously outlined, the amount of arrears written-off has been historically low.

In September 2009, the Council went live with its new Council Tax system, and as part of the “data cleansing” exercise to transfer information from the old system onto the new, £3.8m of Council Tax arrears were written off by the Director of Central Services (under his delegated powers but subsequently reported to Cabinet), along with £0.8m of other arrears.

A report on amounts in excess of the Directors Delegated powers is due to be presented shortly to Cabinet. This will recommend that a further £370,531 of arrears are written off and this process will now be conducted on at least an annual basis.

CounCillor Barnes was not satisfied with the City Council’s response. He said: 

The resonse to my question on debt to the council – an incredible £49.4 million! and an admission that over the last few years little has been done to address this matter other than to right it off! The Cabinet on the council recently received a report on finance which is in the minutes of the full council meeting – how much did the cabinet discuss the matter – no discussion took place at all. What credibility does a council have in making massive cuts in services to people who pay their council tax – whilst it can’t even be bothered to make sure it collects all it is due – £49m is almost equal to the amount of total council tax in Stoke-on-Trent for one year.

Cllr Kieran Clarke, Cabinet Member for Resources responded to Cllr Barnes’s concerns in an Audio Interview which can be heard below..

 

Council Tax Overpayment Phone Scam

Stoke-on-Trent residents are being warned of a telephone scam claiming to pay back council tax over payments.

A council taxpayer from Hanley, yesterday (Monday) informed the council that she had been called by a ‘foreign lady who claimed to be from the city council’.

During these scam calls the council tax payer is asked for personal details including bank account information on the premise that an overpayment of Council Tax can be returned to their account.

The City Council said, ‘Residents are assured that the city council does not phone customers to ask for their bank details, and any council tax refunds are only issued following requests by customers, where appropriate’.

Anyone who receives a scam call is urged to inform the police.

Council agrees 2010/11 budget

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has approved its 2010/11 budget at a meeting today.

The increase in council tax will be 2.89 per cent and will mean residents of Stoke-on-Trent continue to pay the lowest council tax in Staffordshire.

Council tax for Band A homes, which make up 61 per cent of properties in the city, will be £925.87 a year, including the contributions towards the costs of the police and fire service. The increase will be 41p a week for Band A properties.

The council has carried out extensive consultation on its budget proposals since the autumn, including a public survey which produced nearly 900 responses and detailed scrutiny by a series of overview and scrutiny committees.

To deliver a balanced budget this year the council has identified savings of £9.8m, resulting in a net budget of £209m for 2010/11.

A range of savings have been made, including:

* allowing 140 staff to leave through voluntary redundancy and deleting vacant posts that are no longer required
* reorganisation of the way adult social care services are provided
* increasing fees and charges
* recruiting more local foster carers, to reduce the cost of using outside fostering agencies
* reducing maintenance on IT systems following installation of new equipment.

A series of more controversial proposals, including the closure of two swimming pools and a gymnastics centre, have been shelved.

However, the council will now begin a “root and branch” review of all services to identify how to make much greater savings over the coming three to five years.

All councils are expected to receive much less funding from central government over the coming years, because of the effects of the recession and the need to tackle borrowing by central government.

In addition the city council has been hit by the effects of the recession because it has received less income and because demand for services has increased.

The council also set its capital budget for 2010/11 at £141m. This will allow Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire to continue to invest in major regeneration programmes, including redevelopment of the city centre, the University Quarter, town centres, building of new housing and the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Council leader Ross Irving said:

“This year’s budget setting process has been difficult. We have had to make substantial cuts, we have reduced staffing by 140 people and we face a big fall-off in the income we generate.

“We have consulted extensively with the public, with partners and with councillors to come to the proposals we have agreed today.

“We have managed to avoid implementing the most controversial cuts this year, but there will certainly have to be much greater savings next year.

“There will be much less money for local government in the next few years. We will have to change the way we do things, employ fewer people and stop delivering some services. We will have to make radical changes and make lots of tough choices.

“Councillors will begin that root and branch review immediately and get us ready for the lean years ahead.”

Cabinet agrees to rise in council tax

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s cabinet has proposed a 2.89% increase in council tax for the year 2010/11.

 The proposal will now be examined by all councillors at their meeting on Thursday 25 February to approve the budget for the next financial year.

 The proposal is lower than the Government’s recommended percentage of 3% and would still see Stoke-on-Trent residents pay the lowest amount of council tax in Staffordshire.

 Leader of the city council, Ross Irving, said:

“There have been difficult decisions to make in the budget process. We need to realise savings of nearly £10 million.

 “Having listened to public opinion some of the proposals within the budget appear to be unpopular. Efficiency savings need to be made.  Therefore if some of the savings are not adopted as part of next years’ budget, there may be a need to increase council tax.”

 The increase would mean that a band A property, which makes up 61.4 % of properties in Stoke-on-Trent, would see an annual increase of £21.38 in council tax, equating to 41 pence a week.

 

Staffordshire Police Authority Agree Budget To Protect Frontline Services

Staffordshire Police Authority met today to approve a 2.8% to the police element of council tax aimed at maintaining frontline services

The 2.8 per cent increase for 2010/11, agreed at a full meeting of Staffordshire Police Authority members, will represent a rise of less than 10p per week for the standard Band D property owner. Their annual contribution towards policing in the next financial year will be £177.61

Staffordshire Police Authority Chairman David Pearsall said, ‘This settlement is the result of much consultation and consideration. It’s a budget to try and protect our front-line services and continue to meet the needs of our communities in this very difficult financial climate. Members of the Police Authority have undertaken an extensive consultation exercise with local authorities and with local chambers of trade. There was clear support and widespread recognition of the improvements that have been seen. Consultation has also taken place with members of the force and Authority’s Citizens Panels which is made up of 3,000 people.’

He went on to say, ‘They provide us with a representative range of views across age, race, gender and occupation.
Of those who responded to the question “ËœI support the Police Authority and Chief Constable in considering seeking in precept in the region of 3 per cent to maintain existing levels of investment and help deliver more visible and accessible local policing services’, 81 per cent either agreed (40 per cent) or strongly agreed (41 per cent).
“It was a source of great pride to us that last year Staffordshire was highlighted as the best police force in the country at managing finances following an independent assessment by the Audit Commission. We were the only force to be graded “Ëœexcellent’ with a top score nationally for managing finances. Together with our partners and the public, we will continue to put the citizen at the heart of what we do, so they feel safe and secure in their homes, at leisure and in their workplaces.’

The Police Authority is a seventeen-strong independent body of elected councillors and independent and magistrate members united in its commitment to make policing work for each citizen and to re-energise communities and build community spirit ““ working closely with partners and local people to do this.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Plan 2.89% Rise In Council Tax

UPDATED 18:00HRS – AUDIO INTERVIEW WITH CLLR KIERAN CLARKE & MOHAMMED PERVEZ ONLINE

Households across the City of Stoke-on-Trent face a rise of 2.89% in Council Tax.

The rise which equates to an annual rise of £22.23 for properties within Band A. 61% of houses in the City fall into that bracket.

Neighbouring councils are planning smaller rises and in some areas, Council Tax will be frozen.

The rise proposed for Stoke-on-Trent will mean that there will be a reprieve for the popular facilities that were under threat.

Shelton & Tunstall Pools, The Willfield Centre, The City Farm and Stoke recreation Centre are among the facilities that are safe – for the time being at least.

It is understood that these proposals have the backing of the majority of the 60 councillors following some frank discussions with finance officers and the New Chief Executive John Van de Laarschott.

The Labour Group are yet to decide if they will support the budget and are currently working on their alternative.

Cabinet Member for Resources Kieran Clarke gave us his thoughts on the proposed rise. Listen to the Audio Interview below.

Labour Group Leader Mohammed Pervez also set out his party’s position on the Council Tax rise and the Budget. Listen to the Audio Interview below:

Government’s social care promise could double council tax bills

Staffordshire’s social care bosses today added their voices to those raised over the weekend at the potential cost of delivering free personal care at home.

It is likely to be one of the key planks of the Government’s general election strategy and a Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech. A national survey of directors of social services at the weekend suggested providing free care to those most in need would cost £200 a week – double the government’s estimate, placing additional burden on local council tax payers.

County Councillor Matthew Ellis, Cabinet member for Adults and Wellbeing, said:

 

“The aspirations contained in the proposed Personal Care at Home Bill are good. I do, however, have big concerns about raising expectations for the most vulnerable people but not understanding how the cost will be met.


"Staffordshire has, and will continue to have, enormous financial challenges in providing good quality care services to an increasing number of older people. In Staffordshire we are working hard to make every pound go further but we also know that funding from Government is likely to decrease significantly in the coming years. Looking after the elderly and those who need care is a top priority for us but unfunded new initiatives, however laudible, could put intolerable pressures on maintaining other services for vulnerable people.

 

"The information provided so far is not as clear as it might be but suggests that Staffordshire council tax payers would be hit hard in the pocket at a time when many are already struggling.

 

"Current estimates suggest a doubling of this year’s council tax rise to pay for the Government’s plan.

 

“We want more time to be taken to be clear and precise about the cost implications before an unaffordable bill is rushed through Parliament.”


Upgrade to council tax system

By Pits’n’Pots Reporter.

A new software system will mean council tax can be collected more quickly and at reduced cost to city residents, a leading councillor has revealed.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is installing a new council tax system which will use the same software the authority has been using to process benefit claims since January 2005. In that time, the council has reduced the time taken to process changes in circumstances from 54 days to just seven days, and the time taken to process new benefit claims from 81 days to 20 days.

Councillor Kieran Clarke, cabinet member for resources, said: “The new system will align both council tax and benefit

Kieran Clarke

Kieran Clarke

systems, and has huge benefits. It will mean changes in residents’ bills can be processed more efficiently. We will be able to help residents more swiftly, and it will marry up council tax and benefit systems more efficiently so we will be able to reduce costs.”

The new system will take approximately four weeks to implement, from Friday 21 August.

Councillor Clarke added: “Residents and businesses will still be able to make payments during the change over, and we’ll still be able to pay benefit to customers. We’ll also be able to process paperwork.

“Some residents may notice that it will take a little longer to process new benefit claims during this period, but we will be doing everything in our power to ensure the transition is a smooth one for customers.”

Any residents experiencing severe difficulties with their council tax and benefits during this temporary period can call a dedicated hotline number ““ 01782 234045 ““ for help and advice.