This piece first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 20 September 2003
The text here may not be identical to the published text

Three questions to ask before direct action

How to cut council tax bills

The threat on Monday by Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford to cap council tax rises shows how sensitive this local tax has become. This year council tax in England rose by a record 13% - just the latest in a string of inflation busting rises. Since Labour came to power in 1997 the average council tax in England has risen by 60%, compared with inflation over that time of just 16%. The result for those on fixed incomes is that council tax takes a growing share of their money. Pensioners particularly are feeling the pinch. The average tax for a band D home is more than £1000 a year in England and Scotland (and around £840 in Wales) while the basic state pension is barely £4000 a year. Ten days ago thousands of older people marched down Whitehall with three demands – better pensions, protection of savings, and fairer council tax.

In Devon, which has seen some of the biggest rises this year in council tax, more than 200 pensioners are taking more direct action. They have pledged not to pay the latest rise – substituting their own increase of 1.7% to match inflation last September. Councils face a dilemma over what to do – the ultimate sanction is jail but threatening hundreds of pensioners with prison would hardly be politically popular. Axminster pensioner Albert Venison, who is chairman of Devon Pensioners Action Forum, says he and his members are determined to resist. "We’ll take it all the way if we have to. At the moment we’re waiting for the first summons to be sent. First step is the bailiff. But all you have to do is stand outside with the door locked – and your car not on the drive – and say ‘you cannot enter’. After that what can they do? We will go to jail if it comes to it."

But before breaking the law, people who find council tax a burden should make sure they are not paying too much. There are three ways to get council tax reduced.

First, it is reduced by a quarter for anyone who lives alone – or who shares a home with people who do not ‘count’ for council tax purposes. They include children under the age of 18, students and apprentices, people with severe mental impairments, and some carers. There are no estimates of how many single people fail to claim this discount, but the number is thought to be significant. The reduction can be claimed at any time and there is no time limit on its backdating – people who have lived alone since council tax began in 1993 could be owed thousands of pounds.

Second, the tax can also be cut for people where someone in the household has a disability and the home has been adapted either with an extra bathroom or kitchen or to allow a wheelchair to be used. The reduction is given by moving the home down one valuation band, or if it is already in band A by discounting the council tax by one sixth.

Third, council tax can be cut on grounds of income. The latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that nearly five million households already claim this council tax benefit. But another two million people could claim but fail to do so. Most of them are pensioners. From October new rates of benefit for anyone aged 65 or more will extend these rebates to another 290,000 households.

From October 6 anyone aged 65 or more with an income of £116.90 or less can get all their council tax paid – for a couple the figure is £175 a week and only one partner needs to be aged 65 or more. Some help can be given at much higher incomes. The average full council tax in Britain for a house valued in band D is £1080 a year. A single person aged 65 will get some of it paid with a weekly income up to £194 a week and a couple can have a weekly income of £278 and still get some of the tax paid. Complicated rules convert savings to income and some people – but not everyone – with savings over £16,000 may find they are excluded.

If your council tax is higher than the average - say £1500 a year – then a 65 year old may get help with a weekly income up to £224 a week (single) or £318 for a couple.

Younger people get less help. Deduct £15 from these weekly figures for single people aged 60-64 and deduct £20 for a couple where the older partner is 60-64. For people under 60 deduct £62 single or £89 for a couple off all these amounts.

There is also a bias against people in expensive homes. If your home is in band F, G or H, then your council tax will be worked out on the basis of the band E council tax.

Despite the minister’s threats, the Government is paving the way for higher council tax for some people. New powers mean that the government can extend the valuation bands in England for more expensive property which could put up taxes on half million pound homes as soon as next April. And a full scale revaluation of homes in England and Wales could push up taxes for some people in the next few years

Further information:
Contact your local council about all these reductions in council tax.
Council tax protests have a website at
For more details of council tax benefit see Help the Aged's Can You Claim It?

20 September 2003

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