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LGA: Give 'community heroes' council tax discounts

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LGA: Give 'community heroes' council tax discounts

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Local Government and also in Communities, Finance

Nearly 600,000 poor families hit by removal of council tax benefit - JRF Nearly 600,000 poor families hit by removal of council tax benefit - JRF

Council tax discounts should be given to the thousands of 'community heroes' who improve their areas by giving up their time to do things like help run local libraries, museums and leisure centres, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.

Those who commit to running youth clubs or give their time to regularly help the elderly could be among those who would benefit.

The LGA, which represents local authorities in England and Wales, is calling on political parties to include a pledge in their 2015 general election manifestos to fund the setting up of a new volunteering scheme to support voluntary work across the country.

It comes alongside local governments' long-standing call for central government to fully fund council tax support to protect discounts for those on low incomes.

The scheme would provide money for local authorities to introduce a 'community contribution discount', recognising the important contribution made by volunteers.

Discounts would be set locally to take into account the needs of a particular area.

The LGA estimates that if the government was to establish a £50 million start-up fund, 500,000 volunteers could be offered a discount of 10% on their council tax bill next year - in return for helping the public purse save many millions more.

The subsidy would reward the thousands of people who currently volunteer, while also encouraging a new generation to step forward, the LGA says.

It would be targeted at those who "demonstrate a sustained commitment to improving life in their local areas in a way which saves other council taxpayers' money".

For example, elderly members of society can have their quality of life significantly improved by volunteers providing regular company. This can help people live happily and independently in their own home long into their elder years, giving them a better alternative to costly residential care.

Councils would work with charities and established community groups to identify people who should qualify.

LGA chair cllr David Sparks said: "We cannot undervalue the contribution made by those who give up their spare time to help a local charity, support the library or provide a meal and a friendly face to an elderly neighbour.

"The efforts of these community heroes do not just improve the lives of those they directly support. In these times of austerity, they have taken the strain off stretched services and lightened the load on local taxpayers.

"We need to do more to recognise and encourage people who give up their spare time for the good of their community. In some parts of the country, those who volunteer already receive a small discount. But with the huge cuts to local government budgets, it is an offer than many councils can't afford to make.

"A community contribution discount would not only recognise the fantastic work volunteers do, but could help save the public purse many millions more than it costs. It can help raise the profile of volunteering and encourage a new generation of volunteers to step up. Services run by councils help bind our communities together but growing populations and falling budgets mean that in the 21st century our role will be as much about helping people to help themselves.

"Volunteers play a key role in working alongside council staff to improve services, and bring huge benefits to the economy. By making money available for supporting council efforts to reward local volunteers, government could reap the benefits for families, neighbourhoods and the national economy many times over."

In the face of 40% cuts to funding from central government since 2010, councils have seen a surge in numbers of residents wanting to work with their local authority and prepared to give up their time to help keep local services up and running.

Local authorities already have the ability to introduce discretionary local discounts, but this has been massively restricted by government reductions to council tax support funding.

The LGA and local authorities have been calling for government to fully fund council tax support so that the discount can be protected for those on low incomes.

Some councils offer discounts for special constables and army reservists.

The LGA says its proposals, set out in a manifesto for the first 100 days of the next government, would make it possible for councils across the country to roll out a national discount.

Neil Cleeveley, acting chief executive of the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action, said: "So many of the things we value most in our community are made possible by volunteers: Whether it is running sports clubs, friends of local parks groups or lunch clubs. It would be good to see the value of all that great work that volunteers do being recognised in this way."

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