By Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance
Council tax is one of Britain’s most unpopular taxes - only beaten to top spot by the BBC licence fee. And it’s not hard to see why, when so many households dread their bill dropping through the letterbox every year. The average band D bill in England is nearly £1,900 and more than a third of English local authorities charge more than £2,000 a year. Nottingham has the highest band D bill at £2,226, while Westminster in London charges the lowest at £829.
While there is a considerable difference in council tax bills across the UK, this doesn’t tell the full story. New research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance has analysed the affordability of council tax bills by factoring in average income and house prices across local authorities. Millions of us bear the council tax burden, but as the heat maps below show, some households are hit much harder than others.
Comparing council tax bills with average earnings
Looking at the map below, some key points on the council tax burden are plain to see. Those living in Scotland tend to pay a lower percentage of their median annual gross pay on council tax at 5.19 per cent, compared to Wales (6.98 per cent) and England (7.52 per cent). For Scotland, residents in Inverclyde pay the highest percentage of earnings on council tax at 6.12 per cent and those in East Renfrewshire the lowest at 3.68. In Wales, households in Merthyr Tydfil pay the most in council tax as a percentage of income at 8.83, with Monmouthshire the lowest at 5.9 per cent.
Focussing on England alone, there is a noticeable cluster of lighter shaded areas in London and parts of the South East. Furthermore, there is a wider low to high range in the percentage of income spent on council tax compared to Wales and Scotland.
Of the 25 boroughs where residents pay the lowest percentage of their income on council tax, 22 are in London and the remaining 3 in the South East. Westminster pays the lowest percentage at 2.02 per cent.
On the other end of the scale, there are five local authorities where council tax bills make up more than 10 per cent of people’s average earnings: Nottingham (10.32 per cent), Teignbridge (10.13 per cent), Blackpool (10.09 per cent), North Devon (10.08 per cent) and South Hams (10.03 per cent).
Of the 25 boroughs where residents pay the highest percentage of their income on council tax, not one is in the South East - the majority are in the South West and East Midlands.
In absolute terms, council tax bills in the home counties are eye watering - Waverley Borough Council charges £2,091 (band D) and residents in Buckinghamshire pay close to £2,000. But in some areas they work out as a lower proportion of median earnings (which tend to be much higher than elsewhere).
Comparing council tax bills with average house prices
When analysing the data for house prices, the discrepancy between the South East / London and the rest of the country becomes even more stark.
On average, across Wales, Scotland and England, council tax as a percentage of the average house prices equals 0.81 per cent. But in the South East of England, this falls to just 0.58 per cent - and in London, the figure is even lower at 0.33 per cent.
In the top 25 places where council tax as a percentage of the average house is highest, 18 are in the North West and North East alone. Hyndburn and Burnley top the charts where residents pay 2.18 per cent on average for council tax as a percentage of house prices in the area. They face band D bills in excess of £2,000. Yet it’s a very different tale for residents in Westminster, where they pay 0.08 per cent of their average house price on council tax and pay the lowest Band D bill in the country at £829.
The story of rapidly increasing house prices in London and the South East is well known - not least due to our outdated planning laws. But it does not change the fact that council tax bills are, after all, paid from income not from the value of our house. So the council tax struggle for asset-rich, cash-poor households in the South East is still pronounced.
While rates vary from borough to borough, one prevailing message seems clear - taxpayers, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, are paying significant amounts. The size of the bills in absolute terms is simply staggering. But, worse still, it's those in less affluent areas that are suffering a much bigger percentage burden compared to wealthier areas of the UK.
Of course, one important caveat is that the data uses averages. Band D is the accepted average, but some areas mentioned will have more Band A properties, for example. House price data is also average, disguising the large variations seen particularly in London boroughs. Nonetheless, the point remains that council tax bills hit some harder than others.
What can be done about this? The TPA’s message to councils is clear: first and foremost, inflation-busting council tax rises must stop. As I’ve written many times before, councils’ claims that there are no more savings to be made in local government simply do not hold water. Hard-pressed households are struggling to make ends meet. Councils must get a grip, make savings, increase efficiency and stop these huge hikes. If you agree, please sign our petition.