Consultations on council tax benefit changes need to be published within a matter of weeks or councils will “struggle to meet the deadline”, a senior treasurer has said.
The warning came as councils - which are attempting to quantify the impact of numerous funding changes, including a 10% cut in council tax benefit - were told the local government settlement was unlikely to be released until December.
Finance directors at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy’s annual conference last week were told they should already be drafting their council tax benefit schemes ahead of the January implementation deadline.
Sandra Cowley, Stroud DC’s head of finance and an adviser to the government on the localisation of council tax benefit, said: “If you have not got to this stage then you are going to struggle to meet the deadline on this,” she said.
“Working backwards, if you are setting the tax base from about November time you really need to have started this consultation process by mid-summer, even mid-July.”
If councils fail to meet the deadline they will have to use the default scheme, leaving them to plug the funding cut rather than pass it on to claimants via a restructured scheme, thought to be as high as 33% in some cases.
Precise figures for this and a number of other major funding changes must await the local government settlement. Treasurers working closely with the Department for Communities & Local Government have warned publication has already been pushed back from the traditional November date to December.
Jason Vaughan, director of resources for West Dorset DC and Weymouth & Portland BC and the Society of District Council Treasurers’ lead on business rate retention, said: “It seems to have slipped and it is really December now.”
Last year’s settlement was not published until the second week of December, but this time councils must budget for a variety of funding changes, including localisation of council tax, the public health transfer and retained business rates.
Paul Kent, president of the Society of County Treasurers, said: “There are so many things coming together from the 1 April 2013 it is going to be very difficult to separate it all and understand what is creating the changes so it is important we get it as early as possible.”
Mr Kent said the biggest concern was the rolling of specific grants into the business rate redistribution.
“It is this kind of thing the government can change at their behest, without consultation, at the last minute if the deficit reduction programme is not going to plan,” he said.
Mr Vaughan said a consultation on business rate retention baselines, widely expected before parliamentary recess, would not include councils’ precise figures although it should aid modelling of the changes.