SECOND home owners would be hit in the pocket to protect benefit claimants, under plans being considered by council chiefs.

On Wednesday (December 19), Durham County Council’s Labour cabinet will be asked to create a Local Council Tax Support Scheme, guaranteeing payments to council tax benefit claimants remain at current levels for the next 12 months.

Supporters say the move would protect the county’s most vulnerable families.

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But the money would come from axing council tax discounts on empty and second homes and introducing a council tax premium, of 150 per cent, on properties which have stood empty for more than two years.

The proposals are a response to a national shake-up. The Government is localising council tax from April and cutting the grants by which local authorities pay council tax benefit by ten per cent.

Ministers have said pensioners, who make up half of all council benefit claimants in County Durham, must be protected.

This leaves Durham County Council and the county’s other precepting bodies, such as the police service and fire brigade, facing a £5.5m funding shortfall.

An alternative to the Local Council Tax Support Scheme, of cutting council tax support for working age people, is favoured by the Government and has been considered in Durham but looks likely to be rejected.

Alan Napier, the council’s deputy leader, said: “I am extremely concerned about the impact the national changes could have on some of our most vulnerable residents, particularly when considered in the light of the wider welfare reforms agenda.

“It may be that in the longer term this approach is simply not sustainable and we will keep the situation under constant review but I think it’s important to pilot this approach for an initial one-year period.

“We will try to offset the funding gap by implementing the planned changes in the law regarding the right of local authorities to cut, and in some cases remove, council tax reductions on certain empty homes and unfurnished properties.

“This approach will have the added bonus of helping to bring some of these homes back into use.”

The cabinet will meet at County Hall, Durham, on Wednesday at 10am.