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Merging trading standards: the pros and cons for councils

National Audit Office projections show that government funding to local councils is expected to fall by 37% between 2010 and 2016. While the government continues to defend the cuts, several local authorities are taking drastic measures to make the necessary savings to balance their books: by merging their trading standards departments. The proposed merger, between Buckinghamshire and Surrey councils, is predicted to save close to £400,000 per year.Businessmen closing a deal

Co-operation is key

As Buckinghamshire trading standards has noted expertise in the areas of food safety and animal welfare, and Surrey has experience dealing with doorstep crime, it was felt that the two departments could co-operate across county council boundaries effectively, without the need for staff relocations, forced redundancies or office closures. In fact, they are confident that services will improve. So far so good, but can it really work?

There are certainly problems associated with local government mergers. The proposed merger of trading standards, environmental health and licensing at Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff councils, provides ample examples of that.

The councillors behind the merger proposal suggested that it could make immediate savings of £1.3m. However, Unison were quick to challenge the idea of redundancies, raising the spectre of long legal wrangles and bad publicity. What's more, the complexities of combining existing workforces and services ultimately caused Welsh public services minister Leighton Andrews to reject the merger on the grounds he was "not persuaded" that a "compelling vision" had been laid out.

Scaling back

In light of this, the smaller scale merger between Buckinghamshire and Surrey looks a much safer bet, as it avoids direct job losses and office closures, promises improved services through shared expertise and doesn't visibly remove front line services. In fact, the biggest risk is that the savings simply aren't enough to solve council debt issues.

In November 2014 the Audit Commission flagged that £4.55bn of council tax and business rates were unpaid in 2013/14, and individual council arrears ranged from £11.1m to £105.2m. So the potential savings from such mergers pale in comparison with an effective debt collection policy.

For advice on developing a sensitive, considerate approach to recouping council tax arrears, contact a Dukes Bailiffs advisor today.

Plymouth City Council encouraging residents to avoid loan sharks

While some news reports – notably from the BBC – have raised concerns that a clampdown on payday money lenders will lead to a resurgence in loan sharks, Plymouth City Council has teamed up with an unlikely partner to ensure the sharks don't get their teeth into local residents.Empty Purse

Fishy finance

Loan sharks are unlicensed, illegal lenders targeting individuals and families struggling with debt. With unscrupulous individuals demanding interest of up to 700%, they can quickly cause debt problems to spiral. But Plymouth City Council are refusing to let them resurface.

According to the Plymouth Herald, the council has partnered with the National Marine Aquarium for the Say No To Fishy Finance campaign. Backed by the Illegal Money Lending Team, the campaign draws on the handy visual imagery of the aquarium's inhabitants to draw attention to the dangers faced by those who turn to loan sharks. The National Marine Aquarium is also offering prizes to residents who help spread the message on Twitter and Facebook by sharing posts with the #FishyFinance hashtag.

But what of the theory that the clampdown on licenced payday loan companies will leave some people with no choice but to seek out unscrupulous sharks?

Stepping in

Plymouth Council has been keen to highlight the alternatives available to those who are struggling with debt. Councillor Chris Penberthy told the Herald: “Credit Unions are a great way to both save and borrow money in an affordable way and without the high interest rates and crippling debts that make life unaffordable for many people.”

As well as raising awareness of options available to those struggling with debt, councils can also be proactive in reaching out to individuals in arrears with their payments. Debt collection isn't about demanding the repayment of funds, no matter what the personal impact. That's the realm of loan sharks. At Dukes Bailiffs, we believe in engaging with debtors to understand their situation, and set up payment plans that are fair and affordable.

To speak with a Dukes Bailiffs advisor about our services for local authorities, visit our Contact Us page.

Council tax eclipses credit as the biggest personal debt

The Citizens Advice Consumer Challenges 2015 report delves deep into issues around consumer markets and debt in the post-recession period. It seems that problems with priority debt, particularly council tax arrears, have replaced credit card debt as the main area of financial concern for struggling Brits.Mail envelopes Since 2012/13, Citizens Advice has seen the number of people seeking help for credit card debt, unsecured personal loans and mortgage debt decline. Yet those seeking help for essentials like rent, heating, water and council tax bills have risen in number.

In fact, while the debt charity is expecting to help 12% fewer people for credit card debt in 2014/15, they predict 20% more people will seek help with council tax arrears: making it the most common debt problem reported to Citizens Advice.

What caused this shift?

As the report highlights, credit requirements are tightening, reducing access to loans and other consumer credit tools. Meanwhile, low interest rates are easing problems with mortgage arrears. However, the flip side is the rise of the short-term lending sector, and the Consumer Challenges report suggests that this has played a part in exacerbating debt problems.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies also argue that many of Britain's poorest families are suffering from impact of changes to council tax benefits introduced in April 2013. These changes decentralised benefits to local councils, giving each body responsibility for their own benefit system, and accompanied the move with budget cuts of 10%.

In areas where families previously had no council tax costs, but now face big bills, Citizens Advice saw a 30-40% increase in people seeking help: suggesting a direct causal relationship.

What does this mean for councils?

Local authorities remain in a tough position. Hindered by their image as a "soft touch" on debt among tax dodgers and others besides, but facing potential backlash over changes to council tax benefits, councils must walk the line between recouping debt to provide the services tax-paying citizens deserve, while remaining sensitive to genuine stakeholder issues.

Here at Duke's Bailiffs, we believe that this balance is not just possible, it's the right way to approach debts. Our advisers can help you devise a plan to engage with debtors and find a way to recoup payments without forcing bankruptcies or repossessions. For support and advice, visit our Contact Us page.

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