Do Labour councils cost you £350 less in council tax?

10 April 2019
What was claimed

People living in Labour councils pay on average £351 less council tax than those living in Tory councils.

Our verdict

Technically correct for England in 2019/20, based on the average bill per eligible home, but this isn’t very meaningful. Many residents pay council tax to more than one body, so it’s difficult to attribute the cost of council tax to a single council or party.

“People living in Labour councils pay on average £351 less council tax than those living in Tory councils.”

The Labour party, 30 March 2019

With local elections coming up in May, the Labour party has claimed that council tax is £351 lower on average in Labour-run councils than Conservative ones. We saw similar claims from both parties in the run-up to last year’s elections, but found that there wasn’t a fair way to compare the two parties in this way.

The same is true this year. The Labour party’s figure is, technically speaking, correct for England. The average council tax bill for eligible homes in 2019/20 will be £1,168 in collecting councils with a majority Labour council, compared to £1,519 in collecting councils with a majority Conservative council.

But that doesn’t mean council tax in those areas is lower because they have a Labour council. There are a number of other factors that affect the size of your council bill, beyond which party controls your collecting council.

A major issue with Labour’s calculation is that you often pay council tax to more than one body, which can be run by different political parties. This means that often no single party is responsible for every penny you pay: you can live in a Labour-run council and actually pay most of your bill to a Conservative-run body.

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How is council tax collected?

In England, there are two main local government structures—single-tier and two-tier.

In single-tier structures, one council is responsible for providing the majority of local government services, and collecting council tax. Single tier councils include most cities, and all London boroughs.

In a two-tier system, you’ll have two main councils. The county council provides county-wide services (like education, transport and social care), and within that area, separate district councils operate to provide other services, like bin collections and housing, and collecting council tax. You might also pay some additional “precepts” to a town or parish council, or to police or fire authorities.

That means that in two-tier areas the council collecting your council tax isn’t setting the whole amount, and so Labour’s comparison isn’t very meaningful.

Take, for instance, the 26 shire district councils that are run by the Labour party. In these councils, a portion of council tax is paid to the Labour-run district council, but a much larger sum is paid to the county council. Almost all county councils in England are run by the Conservative party.

So even though the average council tax bill per dwelling in Labour-run Burnley is a relatively low £1,096 in 2019/20, most of that bill is set by Conservative-run Lancashire county council.

There is no perfect measure of average council tax bills

How you choose to calculate the value of the average council tax bill in any given area can also affect the figure you come up with, and no measure is perfect.

One alternative measure is the average bill for a two-person household in a “band D” property in any given council (bands in England are based on the value of a home in 1991). This gives a consistent benchmark, and “has historically been used as the standard for comparing council tax levels between and across local authorities.” On this measure, the average band D bill in Labour-run councils is around £30 lower than Conservative councils (but the same problems as outlined above still apply to this calculation).

An additional problem with this measure is that it may not accurately reflect the typical bill in a council if it has few Band D homes. Almost two thirds of homes in England are in a cheaper bracket than Band D.

Central government can affect your bill too

Another issue is that central government decisions can affect the size of your council tax bill too.

Your council tax bill pays for a number of local services, including education, transport, policing, and social care. Decisions made on these areas at central government level can have knock-on effect on how local authorities have to fund them, with potential increases in council tax as a result.

For instance, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that government plans to abolish certain grants for councils mean they will be more dependent on raising money through council tax and business rates and particularly “risk a growing funding gap for adult social care”.

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