District’s debt problem

MORE than £1million was owed by ratepayers throughout the Banbridge district by the end of March this year as people continued to struggle to pay their bills.

And, according to information released to the Leader following a Freedom of Information Request, 86 ratepayers face losing their possessions or being forced to sell property to pay off more than £660,000 owed to date this year. The figures display a worrying trend as the amount of unpaid rates since 2009 has increased by almost £300,000.

Householders throughout the district are subject to a lengthy process by Land and Property Service to recover unpaid rates, beginning with a warning letter when a payment becomes overdue and ending with a court enforcement to pay off their debts.

Four hundred and nineteen people were taken to court last year to pay off more than £700,000 - an increase of almost 40 per cent on the previous year when 300 people were ordered by the court to pay off just under £500,000.

By the end of the last tax year £1,397,868 was left outstanding in unpaid rates.

Ratepayers are given warnings should they fail to pay their rates, and can pay them off at any stage even when summoned to court. But if they fail to pay the money even when ordered to do so by a judge, Land and Property Services hand control to the Enforcement of Judgements Office who can retrieve the money through the person’s wages or even directly from their bank account. It is then that the ratepayer can also face bankruptcy.

Banbridge Citizen’s Advice Bureau Manager Margaret Ellis said that while the main issue in the area remains unemployment and benefits claims, debt - particularly rates arrears - is fast becoming a problem for many local people.

“The number of clients presenting with rates arrears as part of their debt problems has increased over the last few months,” said Ms Ellis.

The bureau manager added that rates are a particularly thorny issue for those with financial problems. “Unlike mortgage debt - where repossession is an option, and bankruptcy an option to clear any shortfall and home owners then have the option of renting a home - rates are an ongoing liability for everyone and must be paid.

“Land and Property Services do apply for bankruptcy for arrears which are not being dealt with; but the current liability still has to be met. Often this leads to arrears accruing again as clients struggle with the ongoing monthly payments.”

But there is help out there, said Ms Ellis, who encouraged those facing rates arrears problems to seeks help at the bureau.

“Some clients qualify for benefit help, which they may not have been aware of before their visit to CAB,” she said. “This may be backdated for three months depending on client circumstances. Rates, including arrears, are always dealt with as a priority with all clients, with any benefit entitlement applied for.”