A LOCAL authority which saw losses to the public purse soar by almost £600,000 to £2m last year, has said its debt collection officers can be “like a dog with a bone” in trying to recover unpaid rent and council tax.

Anthony Sandys, Darlington Borough Council’s head of housing and revenues services, was speaking following the authority launching an investigation into why the amount of debt being written off had risen so sharply.

The debts written off last year included housing tenant rent arrears of £607,190, £163,523 of housing benefit overpayments and £1,292,456 of non-domestic rates and council tax.

A meeting of the council’s economy and resources scrutiny committee heard the authority had collected £119.2m of council tax, rent and overpayments of benefits last year.

Mr Sandys told members: “Part of any process when you are collecting that sum of money is that some debts will be irrecoverable and we have to write them off. Whilst some of the amounts can seem large, we have to put them in context against the amounts we actually collect.”

Mr Sandys said only when the authority’s officers had completed a lengthy series of attempts to recover debts would they bring in bailiffs, but even then it wrote to the debtor offering them a final chance to pay.

He said: “Once it goes to the enforcement agent we generally don’t interfere with it unless there’s an issue of vulnerability. There are very limited cases where we will remove goods, despite what you see on the TV with bailiffs going in taking expensive items. That’s generally not the case with our debts. Particularly for council tax, there’s generally not much that could be removed that’s worth going to auction for.”

The council’s former leader, Councillor Stephen Harker, told the meeting getting the balance right between working out which people were “having a laugh and those genuine financial problems” was a hugely difficult task and genuine cases of hardship needed to be dealt with very sensitively.

Mr Sandys replied at any one time the council’s recovery officers were dealing with about 10,000 cases totalling £5m of debt at liability order stage, so larger debts had to be prioritised and debts of under £500 often got written off.