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Good cop, bad cop, by Richard Hornby

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24 June 2005

Lambeth council's 'zero tolerance' approach to non-payment of council tax goes hand in hand with its efforts to explain to residents how this will result in increased revenues and high-quality services

The e-mail in my in-box wasn't exactly friendly — the subject box read 'bailiffs'. Its author was fuming because Lambeth council had dared to threaten her with action over non-payment of council tax. Nothing new in that, you might think — except that this resident happens to work for the very council threatening to take her to court. She seemed to believe that Lambeth should be giving its employees a little bit of leeway when it comes to paying up — a perk of the job and all that.

Historically, of course, Lambeth has an infamous record for council tax recovery. If you caused enough of a fuss, we wouldn't chase it up. But not any more.

When the dust settles on council tax collection rates for 2004/05, Lambeth expects to boast the highest increase in collection rates in London, maybe in the country. While our 92% rate still ranks poorly in the league tables, it's progress from the previous year's figure of just 88.7%.

Central to the council's financial recovery has been its success in changing this culture of non-payment. The difficulty comes in balancing the public's perception of Lambeth as a caring, sharing and understanding local authority, while taking a tough line on council tax collection. Good cop, bad cop, if you like.

Lambeth is making 20 residents a month bankrupt. If you are in arrears, we will take you to court — there is no such thing as 'a little bit of arrears'. Last November, while most local authorities slammed the brakes on bailiff orders in the run-up to Christmas, Lambeth continued to dish them out. Even if you pay regularly, but late, we will chase you up — because we care about prompt payment.

Of course, if people have genuine difficulties paying, a recovery plan can be discussed, but these tough measures are designed to overcome the perception that Lambeth is a soft touch. The mantra is: 'If you can't pay, we will try to help you; if you can pay, you must.'

But how do you balance the tension between the council as ruthless debt collector and how it wants to be perceived, as an education provider and a supporter of people who are vulnerable and elderly?

The answer is we have to get across to residents exactly why we take this hard line. They rely on us for good-quality housing, benefits and social care and we need the working capital to provide these.

Another vital aspect is the customer's experience. Residents must know where they stand, whether it's about getting their bins emptied on time, providing education or collecting council tax. Every resident should be able to rely on a consistent service when they contact the council, whether they have the outcome that they wanted from the contact or not.

We can ensure, through rigorous customer service training and standards, that every time a resident calls the council they are treated courteously. We must deal with all customer queries quickly and accurately. If there are delays or mistakes (which, with the best will in the world, there will be — we're only human), we must rectify them straight away.

We guarantee this with our council tax direct debit payments. If we make a mistake with direct debit, we will refund any costs immediately.

The council has increased its collection rates through its campaign of zero tolerance against wilful non-payment, backed up with court action. We are not afraid to take people to court, and have a contract with Capita that has built-in targets to improve collection rates.

But there are other improvements that we can make — some that are within our control, some not. A major issue in Lambeth is language, with more than 150 spoken across the borough. For instance, we have the highest Portuguese population in Europe outside Portugal.

Our council tax software can't legally hold a record of people's ethnic origins, which makes it hard to know where to provide translated information. This affects people's understanding of what we need from them, so we would like a change in the law to amend this.

Some people's only experience of Lambeth council is dealing with the council tax office. We must rise to the challenge and provide a consistent experience — being prompt, accurate and courteous in our collection.

People might not like having to pay, or being chased to pay, but if we can treat them well, and make sure they understand that the money collected is being channelled into vital, high-quality services for them, then we are doing our job.

Richard Hornby is assistant director finance (revenue and business services) at the London Borough of Lambeth

PFjun2005

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