AN investigation has been launched into why a local authority has written off debts such as unpaid council tax and council house rent totalling more than £2m – the equivalent of it receiving 1,111 fewer band D council tax payments.

A meeting of Conservative-led Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet approved writing off “unrecoverable” debts, despite having no explanation as to why the losses to the public purse had soared by almost £600,000.

The authority wrote off £1.4m in 2018 and the following year £1.5m was written off. Labour councillor Nick Wallis said the last financial year – most of which was before the pandemic – had seen the council write off £2.1m, a rise of 38 per cent in the amount of money that it would not get back due to issues such as bankruptcies or the disproportionate cost of taking cases to court.

He said while the officers’ report did not provide any explanation of the sharp rise, as would be expected in such documents, by comparing similar reports from previous years it was clear the spike in unrecoverable debts was being at least partly caused by housing tenant arrears.

The officers’ report stated: “All reasonable recovery action has been taken and no further economically viable steps can be taken to recover the sums due.”

Cllr Wallis said the number of cases that had been referred for debt recovery or legal action, but had been considered “not financially viable to proceed” had risen from 14 cases costing £19,972 in 2018/19 to 253 cases costing £471,623 over the last financial year, representing a 2,261 per cent increase. He asked: “What is going on in these enormous increases in unrecoverable debt? The figures look fairly stable from 2016, 2017, 2018 and then this last year it just seems to have gone through the roof.”

The authority’s deputy leader and efficiency and resources cabinet member Councillor Charles Johnson said he accepted Cllr Wallis’s interpretation of the report and described the increase in debts being written off as “worrying”.

Cllr Johnson, who was first elected to the authority in 1976, said: “I have been concerned about the content of the report and have been asking for a meeting with officers to understand whether we have to change the way in which we deal with these particular problems.”

He said: “We have seen these changes over time which have not been reported. We have to investigate them.”

The council’s managing director Paul Wildsmith said an extensive review of outstanding debt had been undertaken and making comparisons between years “is not necessarily correct”. He said: “We have written off more debt this year because we have done a comprehensive review of all outstanding debt. So it isn’t just debt that has happened in the last 12 months.”

Mr Wildsmith said since the pandemic the collection of both council tax, housing tenant rent and non-domestic rates were “holding up incredibly well given the challenges that our residents are facing”.