Brewing rebellion by Labour party and councillors following ACORN campaign.
Campaigners have said that planned council tax changes that will hit the city’s poorest households are “a line in the sand”. The cuts aim to save a maximum of £4.2 million by removing the full discount option of the Council Tax Reduction, a scheme to support the poorest with their council tax.
Having gathered a 4,000 signature strong petition, the community union ACORN are lobbying Labour councillors to vote against the proposals if they are put before councillors in January 2018, following a cross party cabinet discussion set to take place next month.
Sources say that at least four of the 37 Labour councillors are planning to vote against the plans put forward by the mayor, with many others strongly opposed. Adding to the pressure, multiple local Labour party groups are set to pass motions in opposition to the plans. The Greens and Lib Dems have also committed to opposing the plans.
ACORN have sent a briefing document aimed at persuading Labour councillors to vote against the plans. The briefing argues that cuts to the Council Tax Reduction scheme will eventually end up costing the council more than the £1.3-4.2 million per year that can be saved, as indicated by New Policy Institute research on other local authorities.
The briefing also highlights the human cost of the changes, with 16,000 of the city’s poorest households set to lose the 100% reduction. Citizens Advice Bureau have reported significant increases in problems regarding council tax and Child Poverty Action Group research has highlighted the stark choices facing families between paying for council tax or buying food and other necessities.
A large proportion of the households that would be impacted by the change are in Bristol’s most deprived areas such as Hartcliffe, Withywood, Lawrence Hill, Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston.
While acknowledging the pressure the council is under due to government austerity, ACORN wrote “There has to be a line in the sand, or residents will begin to wonder what the point is in voting for a Labour administration.” The briefing highlights that Labour has opposed similar plans when put forward by the Conservatives or former Mayor George Ferguson.
A leaked report circulated to Labour councillors last week hit back at some of the points raised in the ACORN briefing. The ‘confidential’ document questioned the conclusions drawn from the independent research, challenged the legitimacy of ACORN’s petition and notes that the campaign “falls short of suggesting an alternative funding solution”.
In support of the plans, the council have highlighted possibilities for a limited discretionary support fund and protections for especially vulnerable households. If no changes are made the scheme will cost up to £41.8 million next year in order to support 25,000 working age and 13,000 pensioner households who are currently in receipt of a full or partial council tax exemptions.
The mayor is also facing claims from the Green Party and Lib Dems that the public consultation was illegal, as it only offered three options: cuts, cuts or cuts. A source close to the council has said that the consultation is technically legal, as there is a text box for respondents to protest the changes. The legal advice has not been made public and the council have denied a Bristol Cable Freedom of Information request on the grounds of confidentiality.
Bristol City Council stated that “Bristol is one of a small number of councils that has continued to provide the same levels of support to residents since 2013.” Nationally, just 37 councils have maintained the same levels of support since the changes to the council tax system.
Earlier this year Camden council reversed changes and implemented a full reduction for the lowest income families, and Tower Hamlets council voted to retain its scheme, stating that “removing the 100 per cent discount for households who need it will do nothing but push those people further into poverty”.
A spokesperson for the council said there was no comment to made at this point, and that the mayor was discussing the issue with his team.
ACORN have urged the mayor and councillors to drop the plans and “put a clear distance between Labour Party actions in power and Conservative Party policy.”