NO POLITICIAN comes into Local Government expecting to be forced to take decisions that will hurt some of your most vulnerable and low-income residents.
Sadly, however, that is exactly the scenario which Oldham Council is facing this week in launching its Council Tax Benefit (CTB) consultation.
The reforms to CTB are part of a wide-range of changes that are being introduced via the Welfare Reform Act.
The Government describes this piece of legislation as “the most ambitious, fundamental and radical changes to the welfare system since it began” – and for once I agree with them, albeit without their enthusiasm for it.
CTB is a very dry and complex subject but I’ll do my best to try and explain the issues here because – and there’s no hiding from it – this will hit many residents directly in their pockets.
At present all Local Authorities administer Council tax Benefit (CTB) on behalf of Central Government and are reimbursed 100 per cent of what it costs.
From next April, however, the Government has now decided to reduce the amount of funding that it gives to Oldham Council for CTB by 10 per cent.
We must also design our own local CTB scheme with new criteria to meet this reduced budget.
For Oldham Council it means a reduction in funding of about £2.7 million annually and, inevitably, it will mean some people are going to be worse off than before.
Around 28,000 local people currently get CTB.
The harsh reality is that it is not as simple as a 10 per cent cut across the board from all recipients because of the way the Government guidance is geared.
Government has opted to exempt those of state pension age from the changes, which removes 11,000 from that figure straight away.
That means that the burden falling on the remaining 17,000 or so residents will be even greater than that 10 per cent.
Like all other local authorities up and down the country we have no choice other than to try to minimise, wherever possible, the impact on our poorest residents as best we can. But it isn’t easy.
We’ve drafted a proposed new local CTB scheme and agreed this at Cabinet last week, but I can tell you that this was as reluctant a decision as I hope to ever have to make in politics.
You can read more about the proposed details of the new scheme and how it might affect you if you are a CTB claimant here: http://www.oldham.gov.uk/press/article/220/oldham_starts_consultation_on_council_tax_benefit
I would stress that this model is simply a proposal at this stage and that it is also hugely important that you have your say on it.
Letters are going to each resident potentially affected and we’ll monitor the feedback very closely before deciding the final scheme early in 2013.
In that questionnaire we’re also asking for your ideas about how the Council can support you to improve your financial situation.
Whilst it saddens me to have to implement CTB localisation, we as a Council must also respond by delivering for you in other areas.
Our hard work to attract inward investment continues this week at the British Council of Shopping Centres conference in Liverpool, for example. That is part of a major drive to get business to see Oldham differently and come here to create new employment opportunities for people.
A big part of being a Co-operative Council is also about us doing much more as a Campaigning Council on your behalf.
We’re already getting on the frontfoot in this regard in several areas where we think we can make a real difference on issues that are beyond our direct control but have a very clear impact on our residents.
You’ll probably have already seen some coverage of our ‘Fare’s Fair’ campaign, which seeks to end the unfairness in the high comparative cost of public transport in the North East conurbation of Greater Manchester.
At Full Council tonight (September 12) we’re also proposing a motion that, subject to approval, will see us taking steps to establish an Energy Co-operative.
This would seek to create an Oldham Energy Tariff to provide a fairer deal that can lift residents in our most vulnerable communities out of fuel poverty, and I will blog more about this initiative in the future.
There’s a whole range of other issues out there from the growing presence of payday lenders and log book loan shops, to high street banks failing small businesses in our Borough, where we can try to help residents out.
Whilst we know that campaigning work can’t immediately compensate for the financial blow the new CTB scheme will represent for many residents, we’re absolutely determined to do everything we can to continue to try and improve your lot.
Thanks for listening,