Council defends tax collection record

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Scottish Borders Council has this week laid claim to having one of the best Council Tax recovery rates in Scotland.

In 2013/14, the council collected 96.6% of the £51million which the property-based levy, introduced in 1993 to replace the Community Charge (poll tax), yields annually.

And, according to a council spokesperson, that makes it the equal sixth most successful out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

The council was responding on Monday to figures released by Conservative MSP John Lamont, whose party has been in opposition at Newtown since 2012.

Mr Lamont, who will challenge Lib Dem MP Michael Moore in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk at May’s General Election, claimed the council was currently owed £31million in unpaid Council Tax.

While conceding the bulk of these arrears related to the current financial year (2014/15) which still has four months to run, he said that “around £12m remains outstanding from previous years”.

Mr Lamont said: “Councils need to get better at enforcing Council Tax charges. It is grossly unfair on those of us who play by the rules and pay our taxes every year that millions of pounds remain unpaid.

“If collected, as it should be, that money could be put to good use protecting frontline public services.

“Given that Scottish Borders Council is facing financial pressure at the moment, I would have thought officials would be doing all they can to collect as much Council Tax as they can.”

While not disputing Mr Lamont’s figures, obtained using Freedom of Information legislation, the council spokesperson stated: “As is the case with local authorities across the country, SBC has Council Tax arrears outstanding for years prior to 2014/15.

“The level of these arrears will continually reduce as the council pursues them using a variety of methods at its disposal. There are, for example, already a number of instalment agreements in force reducing outstanding individual arrears. As arrears payments are made, they contribute to the council budget.

“SBC’s recovery rate for Council Tax remains at a high level. In 2013/14 it was 96.6%, equal sixth best out of 32 councils in Scotland.

“Over the last five years, we have demonstrated the ninth best performance out of Scottish local authorities for the percentage of Council Tax recovered, while in terms of our cost per chargeable dwelling, at £6.73 we were actually the third cheapest in Scotland.”

Mr Lamont also criticised the Scottish Government for its announcement that historical poll tax debts, incurred between 1989 and 1993, are to be written off. He claimed SBC is still owed £2.3million from non-payers.

“This is incorrect,” said the council spokesperson, citing the decision of SBC’s executive in October, 2012, to write off outstanding Community Charge arrears of £147,000 for 675 Borders debtors because recovery was considered “uneconomic”.