MORE than a hundred demands for payment have been sent to North-East councillors who have failed to pay their council tax bills on time, The Northern Echo can reveal.

Councillors are trusted to spend millions of pounds of public money every year - yet more than 600 across the UK have had to be reminded to pay to fund “precious local services”, an investigation has found.

The Local Government Finance Act bars a councillor from voting on budgetary matters and determining council tax if they have outstanding council tax arrears of over two months.

Despite the risk of being unable to carry out their public duties, at least 646 councillors had reminder letters land on their doormats between 2015 and 2018, with town halls issuing more than 2,400 demands and 320 summonses to their own officials.

At least 104 reminder letters and 12 court summonses were issued to elected officials serving nine councils in the North-East and North Yorkshire during that time.

Among the councillors who had to be reminded of their obligations in our region were company directors, school governors and a supplementary magistrate.

At the time they fell into arrears, they each took home yearly allowances and expenses of between £9,000 and £19,000 for their work on their respective councils.

Disclosures resulting from Freedom of Information request submitted by Newsquest’s Data Investigations Unit saw five councillors named as having received court summonses in relation to their arrears.

They were Northumberland councillor Alan Sharp, a Liberal Democrat who is a named director of a leisure centre and nursery; Durham Labour representative and school governor Heather Liddle; former Hambleton District Council councillor Claire Palmer, who now serves on Northallerton Town Council; Durham Conservative James Rowlandson, who is a farmer and serves as chair of a parish council and Darlington Labour representative Ian Haszeldine.

Cllr Haszeldine said he had always fulfilled his payments within set timescales but added that he had “on occasion received correspondence from the council to remind me of my obligations.”

Divorce and a tough economic climate for farmers contributed to difficulties faced by Cllr Rowlandson in paying his bills.

He said he paid 2017 arrears prior to the summons but the matter was taken to court over administration costs, adding: “We were hit by the worst winter in decades.

“It is pointless trying to explain the stress of a divorce and a winter where sheep were freezing to death – the first thing on your mind is the survival of your stock and business.

“While this does not excuse the delay in payment, the reason is mitigation.”

Ms Palmer said repeated late payments on her behalf were the result of being on holiday and later, having temporary financial difficulties.

She said austerity measures impacted people across the community and urged anyone struggling to pay their council tax to seek help, adding: “I want to encourage people not to hide away, there are places out there where you can get help, whether it’s through the Citizens Advice Bureau or by picking up the phone and calling the council.”

A spokesman for The Local Government Association said the reminder letters sent proved that town halls were pursuing councillors for non-payment and in doing so, demonstrating that “nobody was above the law”.

In response to the findings, the Minister for Local Government, MP Luke Hall, urged councillors to ensure they inspired trust by paying their bills on time and doing their bit to pay for local services.

He said: “Locally elected representatives, at all levels, should seek to inspire confidence and have the trust of the people who elect them.

“All residents, including councillors, should pay their council tax to help fund our precious local services and every local authority is required to adopt a code of conduct for all council members.”

Authorities in Darlington and Durham issued the highest number of reminder letters to councillors, when compared to disclosures from six other North-East and North Yorkshire councils.

John Hewitt, corporate director of resources at Durham County Council - which sent 37 reminders and three summons to elected officials - said: “We treat all residents equally when issuing council tax reminder letters and give everyone the opportunity to make arrangements to pay what they owe in manageable amounts.

"We encourage anyone who is struggling to pay their council tax to contact us to discuss their circumstances so we can consider whether they are eligible for support through any discounts and exemptions which they may be entitled to.

“It is important to note that we are the largest council in the region with 126 elected members. This is considerably higher than other local authorities and any comparisons should be made with this in mind.”

  • Councils in Hartlepool, Redcar, Stockton, Sunderland and York did not provide disclosures, while no reminder letters were sent to councillors in Newcastle, South Tyneside or Harrogate.