Decision status: For Determination
Is Key decision?: Yes
Is subject to call in?: No
The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) explained the reasons for the matter being treated as a general exception exempt from call-in.
The proposal met the definition of a key decision in the Council’s Constitution as it affected two or more wards and would potentially incur expenditure above £100,000. Due to the matter having just arisen, it had not been possible for the proposal to be included in a Forward Plan at least 28 clear days before the decision was to be made. In accordance with paragraph 15 of the Access to Information Procedure Rules in Part 4 of the Constitution, the Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee’s had been informed that the taking of the decision was urgent and could not reasonably be deferred because of the need for a policy to follow the latest Government advice and some specific requests from residents as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which required addressing.
In addition, the Constitution stated that the call-in procedure should not apply where a decision being taken by the Cabinet was urgent and any delay likely to be caused by the call-in process would, for example, seriously prejudice the Council’s or the public’s interests. In accordance with paragraph 16(j) of the Overview and Scrutiny Procedure Rules within Part 4 of the Constitution, the Chairman of the Council had been consulted and had agreed that the decision proposed was reasonable in all the circumstances and for it to be treated as a matter of urgency and that the call-in process should be waived.
The Finance and Resources Portfolio Holder presented the report. As part of the measures of assistance in relation to Covid-19, the Government had announced additional support to all those in receipt of Council Tax support. In order to speed up the changes to Council Tax bills, the Government would provide s.31 grant to be distributed through Council’s existing hardship funds. As in a number of other districts, South Lakeland District Council did not have an existing hardship policy so, in order to apply the additional discount, there was a need to agree a new policy.
South Lakeland District Council’s share of the Council Tax hardship fund was £487,092 based on 2,255 working age caseloads at Quarter 3 2019/20. The Government expected that the majority of this fund would be used to provide Council Tax relief alongside existing local Council Tax support schemes. In addition, it was expected that the Council might also want to use some of this funding to deliver increased financial assistance having considered local circumstances.
The Government’s strong expectation was that billing authorities would provide all recipients of working age local Council Tax support (LCTS) during the financial year 2020/21 with a further reduction in their annual Council Tax bill of at least £150, using their discretionary powers to reduce the liability of Council Tax payers outside of their formal LCTS scheme design. South Lakeland District Council’s Emergency Non-Executive Decision 007 Council Tax Covid-19 Hardship Fund had approved payments of up to £300 to recipients of the Council’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme, as set out in Appendix 2 to the report. Software had now been received to enable the Council to award this funding and to issue revised bills with the reduction applied.
Having allocated grant to reduce the Council Tax bill of working age LCTS recipients, billing authorities were being requested to establish their own local approach to using any remaining grant to assist those in need. Billing authorities were expected to want to revisit their broader approach at intervals during the financial year, in order to ensure expenditure for 2020/21 remained within their allocation. The Government stated that, in determining any broader approach to delivering support, local authorities were best placed to reflect on the financial needs of their most vulnerable residents. In doing so, they might wish to consider using their remaining grant allocation as part of wider local support mechanisms. These might include, but were not restricted to
(a) Council Tax relief using existing discretionary discount/hardship policies (adapted where necessary in order to capture those most likely to be affected by Covid-19);
(b) additional support outside the Council Tax system through Local Welfare or similar schemes;
(c) a higher level of Council Tax reduction for those working age LCTS recipients whose annual liability exceeded £150.
Local authorities were expected to use their discretionary powers under s.13A(1)(c) Section 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992.
South Lakeland District Council’s existing discretionary Council Tax Policy, the South Lakeland District Council Tax Reduction Scheme Exceptional Hardship Policy had been approved in November 2015 and was now out of date. A replacement Interim Discretionary Council Tax Relief Policy was attached at Appendix 1 to the report. This discretionary policy reflected those either approved or being considered elsewhere in Cumbria and gave delegation to officers to award support.
This policy supported, but was not part of, the Council’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme which formed part of the Council’s Budget and Policy Framework and was subject to public consultation and consideration by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Due to the urgent need to give support as soon as possible, it was not practical to carry out the usual consultation period of “ideally be not less than eight weeks but no longer than 12 weeks.” It was considered there were good reasons to implement the interim policy and to carry out a consultation process for four weeks and to report all feedback to the next scheduled Cabinet meeting and Council meeting on 30 June 2020. At that meeting, the Council would be asked to approve the final policy. A report would be prepared for Council to consider on 30 June 2020 which would summarise all comments made by consultees and recommend approval of a final policy which reflected any comments received.
Having reviewed the current Council Tax Reduction Scheme (CTRS) caseload within South Lakeland, there were 2,410 claims, of which 1,976 received the full 100% support. In total, the current scheme reduced the Council Tax payable by these 2,410 claimants by £2.745m from £3.013m to £0.267m for 2020/21. Modelling suggested that the approved payments of up to £300 per claim would cost £113,000 based on current claims and would, therefore, be affordable. However, it was unknown yet how many additional claims for CTRS would be received for 2020/21, all of whom would be eligible for the additional mandatory relief of up to £300. Therefore, the amount of remaining funding to be allocated under the new discretionary policy would not be clear until March 2021. It was not practical to withhold consideration and award of relief under the discretionary policy until March 2021, but officers would be mindful to awards made when considering applications.
Members welcomed the proposals, thanking officers and the Finance and Resources Portfolio Holder for their work in this current, difficult situation and stressing the need to care for the most vulnerable residents in South Lakeland, also commending the Council’s own current local Council Tax Reduction Scheme. Concern was raised with regard to the future and the potential increase in unemployment within the area given the impact of COVID-19 on the leisure industry. Also raised was the importance of communication of the Policy and Fund. The Health, Wellbeing and Financial Resilience Portfolio Holder undertook to take this matter on board and to provide an update at the next fortnightly councillor briefing session.
A vote was taken on the proposals during which all Cabinet Members confirmed that they had, without interruption, heard the full presentation and discussion on the item.
RESOLVED – That
(1) the Chief Executive be recommended to approve the draft interim policy attached at Appendix 1 to the report as an Emergency Non-Executive Decision;
(2) officers be authorised to commence consultation on the Interim Policy under the Councils’ Budget and Policy framework for approval by Council on 30 June 2020;
(3) the Councils Section 151 Officer be authorised, in consultation with the Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resources, to immediately process claims under the Interim Policy;
(4) the Council’s Section 151 Officer be requested to explore the opportunity to consider a further welfare scheme in the event that there are monies available from the temporary Coivd-19 funding available; and
(5) Appendix 2 to the report, which was introduced as a temporary scheme with the Government’s funding relating to the impact of Covid-19, be endorsed.
Reasons for Decisions
The decision assists in the delivery of the Council Plan as the scheme contributes towards working across boundaries to deliver sustainable communities, creating balanced communities and reducing inequalities so no one is left behind.
Alternative Options Considered and Rejected
The scheme could be amended to increase, or reduce, discretion in making awards. This would vary the assistance to be awarded. The proposed scheme gives a balance between awarding additional relief and the cost of relief awarded.
Publication date: 22/05/2020
Date of decision: 20/05/2020
Decided at meeting: 20/05/2020 - Cabinet