COUNCILLORS have agreed to extend council tax support for another year to help struggling families across County Durham.

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.

Durham County Council’s scheme is among a select few nationally that continues to offer up to 100% council tax exemptions for all working age claimants.

At a virtual meeting, councillors agreed to extend the scheme for another financial year into 2021/22.

Councillor Simon Henig, leader of the council, said the extension was “more important than ever” during the Covid-19 crisis.

He added: “Seven years after the Government abolished the national council tax benefit system, we are among a small number of authorities nationally to continue to offer working age residents up to 100 per cent exemption from paying council tax and the only authority in the North East to do so.

“Our local council tax reduction scheme benefits tens of thousands of residents across County Durham and this is more important than ever during the extremely difficult circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Councillor Angela Surtees, cabinet member for social inclusion, added the scheme was “vital” in the council’s approach to tackling poverty.

She told the meeting: “It should not go without notice that our scheme provides an important safety net for the most disadvantaged, low paid working age households as well as those on welfare benefits seeking employment.

“Twenty percent, nearly 7,300 households, in receipt of council tax reduction under our policy are actually in work but their earnings are such that without this support they would face even harder choices between feeding themselves and their families and heating their homes, versus paying more council tax.

“Many of these households will be on zero-hour contracts at national minimum wage which is a scourge of our modern economy and which has left many even more exposed to the impacts of coronavirus.

“Withdrawing or reducing the support to these low paid working age households simply does not make sense and causes all sorts of difficulties in terms of recovering sums.”

According to a report to councillors, there are currently 58,250 LCTRS claimants in County Durham.

In the current financial year 2020/21, the council is expecting to provide council tax reduction support to residents totalling around £61.9 million.

The report adds that the coronavirus pandemic has had a “significant impact” on the LCTRS working age caseload.

Awards of LCTRS are projected to be £5 million higher in 2020/21 than they were in 2019/20.

Plans to extend the LCTRS into 2021/22 won unanimous support from councillors.

Councillor Amanda Hopgood, leader of the council’s opposition Liberal Democrat group, said she “wholeheartedly supported” the extension.

“I think it is something that we should do and probably this year, it has never been more important moving forward when we see how people are struggling,” she added.

The LCTRS will be kept under ‘continuous review’ with future extensions considered by council bosses in future.