Georgia Preece, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
How councils can support people with mental health problems through the latest rise in council tax
5 April 2022
Last week councils across England and Wales increased council tax rates for the second year in a row. Even before this second price hike, more than 7 million people in England were already worried about paying their council tax. This comes at a time when households are recovering from the pandemic, and people are struggling with the cost of living crisis.
Council tax increases are hitting people at a time when they are least able to afford them. But for people with mental health problems – who are already on lower average incomes, and who are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with less savings to rely on – these hikes are likely to be devastating . While it’s welcome news that the government has offered households support with a £150 council tax rebate, it’s unlikely this will substantially reduce people’s worries anytime soon.
Difficulties accessing entitlements to support
Alongside massive affordability issues, people with mental health problems can also face barriers to communicating with their local council about their council tax. This can leave people unable to access the support they’re entitled to and unable to reach out for help – with mounting debts a frightening consequence.
Many councils’ communication channels are inaccessible. The reliance on letters and telephone calls as a default, alongside use of complicated language, provides limited support to those who need it. While some councils, like Salford council, are following best practice and ensuring that all their standard communications are in plain English, standards are disparate across the country. It’s difficult enough to get to grips with what a council tax bill means at the best of times, but this can be made a lot harder when we’re unwell and struggling to digest large amounts of information.
People also aren’t consistently being made aware of discounts and support schemes that they may be eligible for. For example, some people with mental health problems will be eligible for common discounts, or even a discretionary council tax support scheme. But this is only helpful if people are actively aware of the options and support available to them, or how they could go about applying for it. In a survey of over 200 people with lived experience of mental health problems, more than four in five respondents (82%) said that their council had not provided information about council tax support schemes and less than half of respondents (49%) reported that they knew about the discounts they were eligible for.
What can councils do to help?
Below we set out three recommendations for how councils and central government can help people with mental health problems understand and manage their council tax bills.
- Councils should ensure that their standard communications are easy to understand, by using plain English and using preferred communication channels – so that everyone can prepare and budget for council tax increases and have some power over their finances.
- Councils should ensure they gather people’s communication preferences and actively communicate through them, so that changes to bills are more likely to be noticed and so people are able to reach out for support when they need it.
- Councils should simplify the process of applying for discounts and deductions to make them more accessible by including signposting in letters and online. This would go a long way in ensuring that people with mental health problems receive the support they need to manage their council tax bills.
Of course, the problem doesn’t lay in the hands of local government alone. Central government has a huge role to play in ensuring that councils are adequately funded to support their residents with council tax support schemes. Both central and local government must play their part in ensuring that we dismantle the barriers that people with mental health problems face in accessing discounts and managing their council tax payments and arrears.