HARD-up council taxpayers are set to see their support scaled back to cope with multi-million pound cuts.
Almost 90,000 people in the Bristol region receive council tax benefit, to help them cover the cost of their bills.
But under new reforms announced by the Government, councils are to be handed control of the process and ordered to find 10 per cent savings.
And if they can’t cut the cost, local authorities – already facing huge grant cuts – could be left further out of pocket.
The 10 per cent target means a reduction of around £8 million across Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils.
Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said the move would lead to a “fairer” system and persuade councils to cut down on fraud and errors, which he said cost £200 million a year.
But the Local Government Association pointed to big cuts to the money available.
Councils are expected to be given freedom on how to find the savings, either by cutting the number of people receiving council tax benefit or reducing the amounts paid out.
Currently council tax benefit is worth between £16 and £18 a week, and covers up to 90 per cent of a bill.
Bath and North East Somerset has 12,280 people receiving it, Bristol 44,810, North Somerset 16,440 and South Gloucestershire 15,390.Although elderly people are to be protected from a cut to their payments, there are no guarantees for other taxpayers.
The Government’s consultation paper on the proposals says: “It is possible that, if your local authority does not think that you are among those who need most support, as a result of these changes, you might have to pay more of your council tax than you do currently.”
In the current system, councils receive a rebate from central government for the amount of council tax benefit it needs to cover those who are eligible. From 2013, councils will be given a set amount in advance, based on previous year’s totals and including the cost saving target.
This could also have implications for the finances of the councils, which are already facing multi-million pound reductions in their grants.
The consultation document says there is a risk: “Local authorities struggle to collect increased amounts of council tax from those households who experience a reduction in support with their bill.”
Mr Pickles said: “Local authorities will have much greater freedom to administer rebates in a way that best meets local needs and best supports local people, while safeguards will be put in place to protect the most vulnerable, including pensioners, from any reduction in the support that is on offer.”
But Simon Parker, director of the New Local Government Network think-tank, said: “Just because the Government cuts council tax benefit doesn’t mean fewer poor and elderly people need it. Many councils are already making huge cuts to their budgets and will struggle to top up what they get from central government.”
And Local Government Association vice-chairman, David Sparks, added: “Giving councils the freedom to target council tax relief at those residents who really need it will give local authorities greater autonomy, but big cuts to the money available mean adopting responsibility won’t be easy.”
The Evening Post contacted all four authorities to comment on what changes they might make to cope with the budget cut, but only North Somerset Council provided a response.
Spokesman Nick Yates said: “We received the consultation document earlier this week so we’re carefully looking at the proposed changes before we formulate a response.”