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A Q&A on council tax collection

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2013

Wokingham Borough Council in Berkshire has yet again topped the list of unitary authorities for council tax collection levels, on 99.43%, up from 99.37% in 2011/12. PSE asked Kevin Mercer, the head of service covering the council tax collection service, how it has managed it. 

Q) What is your overall strategy for council tax collection?

A) Our strategy is to be ‘firm but fair’. We’ve tried to create the widest-possible range of payment methods for customers, to meet their needs. That includes Direct Debit, payment kiosk, internet, phone, post office or Payzone or libraries, personal internet banking, even staff being able to take payments when they’re talking with customers. We also still accept the good old fashioned cheque as well. 

With Direct Debt, we also offer a choice of three payment dates – the 1st, 10th, or 20th of the month – which has pushed rates of payment by Direct Debit above 70%. That makes life an awful lot easier. 

Behind that we have an established recovery process that follows the normal legal steps – reminder, final summons, liability order. We go for attachments before we go anywhere near a bailiff, and if people really don’t want to pay us, we’re happy to consider bankruptcy proceedings. 

But all the way through that process, we’re constantly offering our customers a chance to talk to us about any problems they’re having, and we’re always prepared to make them a suitable payment arrangement.

For those in real desperate straits, we’re also happy and able to arrange a complete welfare benefit review, to ensure they’re claiming everything they should be claiming from us and from Government to maximise their income. 

Q) How important are the borough’s demographics to your high council tax collection rate? 

A) We can’t deny that our demographics make it easier. Wokingham is a very affluent area, one of the most affluent in the EEC: that undoubtedly helps us. But we’ve still got to collect, and we look to collect a very high percentage of what is this year £95.5m. 

We only have a 1% bad debt provision, so we’ve got to be on our toes all the way through. We make sure we’ve got close links with the benefit service alongside the tax service. 

More than anything, it’s all underpinned by consistent application of the processes, so the customer appreciates where we are and what we are doing. We have to make sure our staff apply things consistently as well. Word flies, and people will very soon try to take advantage if not. 

Q) How do you balance the costs of tackling the most difficult cases versus the revenue collected? 

A) For us, it’s the other way round. Because of the collection rates we achieve, we’re quite happy with the balance. If anything, we’d look at whether we could make efficiencies and cut our costs further. Across the last three years, we’ve had 99.2%, 99.3% and 99.4%. We’re right at the peak of what’s collectible and sustainable within a year.

Our costs of collection are not excessively high. The budget is quite trim. 

We’re looking for ways of become more efficient – we’ve done a Lean review to strip out inefficiencies. 

We’re very active in the development of self-service routes for our customers, automating wherever we can. 

We’re looking at cutting our costs of collection, not increasing them, and if we have to get into specialist recovery such as bankruptcy activity, where costs could mount, the process we follow through our legal services has a pre-judgement part to it.

So we look to ensure the client has the resources to pay the bill before we start incurring all the legal costs. But we’re doing it internally, so we’re controlling the costs, rather than externally where it could be higher. 

Wokingham is well-known for having some of the lowest staffing levels in the country. Our council tax and business rates operation has only 11 FTE staff, covering everything from start to finish, from the bill to enforcement and inspection, covering 63,000 domestic properties and 3,500 business properties. 

Whenever we’ve carried out any kind of benchmarking against similar authorities to ourselves, it shows us as consistently lower on staff levels. That’s because of a mixture of efficiency and demographics. 

Q) What tips would you offer other councils? 

A) Offer the widest possible range of payment mechanisms, including variable dates, because that allows your customers to budget. 

Ensure close co-ordination with the benefits service to ensure what you’re looking to collect is the accurate figure. 

Take a firm but fair approach to formal recovery processes and ensure they’re consistently applied by all staff, so customers are clear about what route will be gone down. It’s surprising how many people who struggle to pay once struggle to pay next time too – you’re dealing with the same people. 

Always keep the door open for customers to contact you and discuss problems, and do what you can to help. 

We also keep telling customers about our success: we keep telling all the people in the borough how much we collect, and that our rate is 1.75% more than average in England. That’s an extra £1.5m the council’s got to provide its services. That’s a message worth repeating.


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