DURHAM County Council is set to continue its council tax reduction scheme to support those struggling to pay bills.

In 2013, the national council tax benefit scheme was abolished and replaced by the ‘local council tax reduction scheme’ (LCTRS).

Since that date, councils have designed their own support schemes and are required to review them every year.

In County Durham, the LCTRS is open to residents on a low income, whether in work, unemployed or retired, who meet certain criteria.

The scheme is also among a select few nationally that continues to offer up to 100% council tax exemptions for all working age claimants.

This week, Durham County Council’s cabinet backed plans to extend the scheme for another financial year into 2021/22.

“I have championed the need for maintaining our council tax support scheme for many years,” said councillor Alan Napier, deputy council leader with responsibility for finance.

“We have consistently protected the benefits that are payable under this scheme to ensure our most vulnerable residents are supported.

“It is more important than ever that we continue to provide benefits through this scheme that mirror those that were in place before the scheme was passed to local authorities.”

Cllr Napier was speaking at Wednesday’s (November 18) cabinet meeting, which was held via videolink and broadcast on YouTube.

The council was allocated just under £7 million from the government’s Hardship Fund in March, with the cash used locally to help residents and to supplement the council’s Welfare Assistance Scheme.

The money was also used to give eligible working age LCTRS claimants – who were not in receipt of 100% tax support – a further reduction of up to £300 on their bills.

In recognition of the difficulties people are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic, county bosses also backed plans to give LCTRS claimants further reductions of up to £100  on their tax bills in 2021/22.

Cllr Napier added: “It is because we have protected our [council tax reduction] scheme that we have been able to provide additional support through the pandemic.

“We have applied a further £300 reduction to eligible residents’ council tax bills this financial year, which I know has been a huge help to people who are struggling to pay bills and make ends meet.

“We’re also proposing to apply an additional £100 of council tax support next year, this alongside our welfare support schemes, will ensure this council is providing as much support as possible to our local residents.”

According to a cabinet report, there are currently 58,250 LCTRS claimants and 80% of working age claimants currently receive a full 100% reduction. 

In all, the council expects to provide support to residents totalling in the region of £61.9 million through council tax reduction in 2020/21. 

This is higher than was originally expected pre-pandemic and is due to additional new claims received, with council staff dealing with around 3,000 more claims from people of working age. 

Councillor Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, welcomed the proposals to extend the LCTRS.

He stressed County Durham was now one of a small number of councils  continuing the same level of council tax support for low income households as under the previous scheme – and the only area in the North East region to do so.

Councillor Angela Surtees, cabinet member for social inclusion, added the importance of the LCTRS “cannot be underestimated.”

She went on to say: “Local people are facing real difficulty. The decisions that we have taken as a cabinet in relation to protecting this scheme over the years haven’t been easy but I’m really pleased that the scheme in County Durham still offers council discounts of up to 100% for eligible residents.

“We’re the only council in the North East to provide a scheme with 100% benefits despite cuts to the funding that were made when the scheme was passed over to us to administer.

“I’m really pleased and very proud that we can continue this scheme and I wholly endorse the report.”

Full council will meet in December to formally consider the proposal to extend the council tax reduction scheme in its current form.