Do I Have to Pay Council Tax?


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By Crispin Bateman

on Monday 10 June 2019


No one likes council tax. It ranks in the top three most hated taxes in the UK and is weighty enough to be a significant outgoing in most households’ monthly budget.

But what is it, what is it used for and, most importantly, can you get out of paying it?

Person holding a cut out house

What is council tax?

Council tax is a charge placed on those living in a British home to pay for the local council. It came into being in 1993 to replace the hugely controversial Community Charge (called the Poll Tax), itself a replacement for the local rates system that had been around in some form for over three hundred years!

Council tax is based on the value of your property. Simply put, if you have a more expensive house, then you pay more council tax. It is the responsibility of the homeowner (in owned properties) or the main tenant (if renting) but is calculated based on all occupants of the household and can be paid annually or monthly in 12 or 10 instalments (based on your wishes and the options from the local council).

How is council tax calculated?

Every property is banded from A to H, where A represents the lowest value properties and H the highest. The main calculation used to form an initial banding is your property’s value from 1991. As this data can be considerably out of date, there are plenty of people still paying the wrong band for their council tax, but you can request a re-evaluation from the council which will update your band (hopefully helping to make your council tax cheaper). In this way, some properties are still paying based on a value nearly 30 years out of date, though most others have been re-evaluated at some point along the way.

If you believe you are in the wrong band (for example, you pay more council tax than your neighbours, despite having near-identical properties), then you should contact the council and ask to be re-evaluated.

Are there ways to reduce council tax?

The only way to change the actual value of your council tax bill is to have your home re-evaluated and enter a cheaper band. However, there are also many ways to get a council tax reduction or even total council tax exemption.

Who is exempt from council tax?

Properties are temporarily exempt from council tax if they fulfil any of the following criteria:

  • They are occupied entirely by full-time students

  • They are occupied entirely by people under 18 years old

  • The property is part of armed forces accommodation

  • The property is inhabitable, unoccupied and currently undergoing repair work to bring it to a habitable state – this exemption has a limit of 12 months

  • The property forms part of the estate of someone who has recently become deceased and is currently unoccupied – this exemption has a limit of 6 months after the grant of probate

  • The property has been repossessed by a mortgage lender or forms part of a bankruptcy arrangement and is also unoccupied.

How can I get a reduction on my council tax bill?

Single occupancy

Council tax is based on two adults living together in the property. If you are the sole person living in your house over 18, then you are entitled to a reduction and should contact the council to apply for this. You will have to prove your situation to them but you will get a smaller bill once the process is complete.

A low income

One common question is ‘do you pay council tax if you are unemployed’? And depending on your savings and other income, the typical answer is ‘no’. Council tax reductions for people on low income can be up to 100%, especially if you are claiming housing benefits or have your rent paid as part of universal credit.

If you are claiming any benefit, including tax credits, then you should contact your local council and apply for a council tax reduction as someone on low income. They will require full disclosure of your financial situation, but it could save you a considerable amount.

Living with a disability

If you or any member of your household is living with a disability that means your house has been adapted in any way to cope, then you may be entitled to a reduction on your council tax bill. Contact the council for more information.

Second adult rebate

If the second adult in your property is not working or otherwise entitled to a reduction and is not your partner or spouse, then you may be able to get a percentage reduction. Each council will have slightly different rules, so contact your local council for more help on this matter.

Who has to pay council tax?

If you have never paid council tax and suddenly find yourself in receipt of a large and often frightening-looking bill, then the first question likely to pop into your mind is ‘do I have to pay this?’

Legally, you have to pay council tax. Outside of the exemptions and reductions described above, the bill is something you just have to accept and clear. Councils have strong powers to ensure that the tax is paid – once your payment is more than seven days late, they may start to chase and can swiftly move to court proceedings.

From here, they will have the right to place a liability order on you, giving them access to your pay directly from your employer, or to send bailiffs to your house who will take your possessions and sell them to pay the bill. You could even end up in prison for up to three months for non-payment.

Can you go to jail for non-payment of council tax?

In reality, councils are very unlikely to press for jail time and it would only happen in the most extreme example. It certainly isn’t something most people should worry about.

Like with all debts, the most important thing is communication. If you are struggling to pay your council tax, then you should immediately phone your local council and discuss the situation with them. It may be that you are entitled to a reduction for being on low income and even if not, they will do their best to reach a repayment plan with you that works.

Councils are entitled to ask for full disclosure of your finances if you ask them for help, so be prepared to submit bank statements and fill out forms detailing your expenses, but once this difficult process is complete, they are likely to be very helpful and may even wipe off sections of your debt to help.

It is always worth talking to them – they may also offer other advice regarding benefits you are entitled to and the phone call may result in you finding yourself with more help and available money than you realised you could get!

So, no – don’t worry about jail. While it remains a legal alternative by the council, it is seldom sought.

What happens if you refuse to pay council tax?

While councils are willing to be very helpful to those who are trying but struggling to pay their bills, they take a very different stance to anyone who is wilfully determined not to pay their dues. Here, all the previously mentioned legal options available to them, from bailiffs to jail time, will be applied with full legal backing.

How long can someone stay as a guest without paying council tax?

Technically, a guest is someone visiting you who has their own permanent place of residence and will be paying council tax on that home. In that case, they are not responsible for paying council tax because they are not living in the property.

A ‘guest’ who moves in with their possessions, has no other permanent address and is planning either to stay for an extended period or is staying with you while they look for their own place is liable for council tax from the first day of their stay.

However, if you are not personally claiming a reduction for being a single person or any other reason, and are paying the full council tax bill, then there is no extra charge for your guest being there (no matter how long it is for).

If you are claiming a reduction, then your live-in guest may affect your right to that reduction. You should speak to the council and get advice from them to avoid being in the position of having fraudulently claimed a reduction which may affect you badly in the future (from simply having to pay back the reduction, to finding yourself being prosecuted for fraud).

Council tax FAQs

I rent - do I still have to pay council tax?

Yes – paying council tax is the responsibility of the tenant, not the landlord. Note, however, that some properties are rented inclusive of council tax (meaning the landlord has chosen to pay it) to make them more attractive to prospective tenants.

How much is council tax?

The exact bill depends on your local council and your property band. Most council tax bills are in excess of £100 per month, making them a substantial outgoing for many families.

Contact your local council to find out your accurate council tax bill, or if you are planning to move to an area, check with the local council there to find out how much you will be paying.

What is council tax used for?

A quarter of your local government spending comes from your council tax. It is used to pay for policing and fire services in the area, recycling and refuse collection, cleaning streets and public places, local parks and playgrounds and support for the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Each local council can independently choose how to use their funding and the exact amounts spent in different areas will alter across the country. Most council websites have a breakdown on how the money is used for you to see.

How can I avoid paying council tax?

If you are not exempt and do not fulfil the criteria for a reduction as detailed above, then you can’t avoid your council tax.

Do I have to pay council tax on an empty second property?

Different councils do have their own rules on how they treat empty properties. Some offer a discount on council tax for a limited time, while others charge a premium-in-order to encourage landlords and houseowners to use their properties!

Contact your local council for full details.

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