The number of people struggling to pay their council tax in England soared last year, according to debt charity StepChange.

It says 45,561 people in council tax arrears sought its help in 2013, up from 25,500 the previous year – an increase of 77% (see our Council Tax guide to ensure you're in the right band and not overpaying).

On average, people falling behind on council tax were £102 short of what they needed to cover essential household bills every month.

The figures come less than a year after council tax benefit was replaced with localised council tax support across England. Now each council sets its own policies on how to help vulnerable households.

It's estimated that 2.4 million low-income families are paying an average of £138 more in council tax for 2013/14 as a result of the change (see the Council tax benefit axe MSE News story).

StepChange fears a further rule change could make the situation worse. From April, anyone visited by a bailiff for not paying their council tax could be charged an extra £310.

At present there's a fee of £24.50 for the first letter sent by a bailiff, but after that there's no defined fees structure.

'Councils should do more'

The charity is calling on local councils to do more to support those struggling, and to ensure vulnerable people do not see their debts grow through the unnecessary use of bailiffs.

StepChange also believes local councils should:

  • Allow breathing space. If people can show they need time to recover their financial position, councils should give them that time.
  • Accept reasonable payment. Councils should take into account a person's ability to repay and accept reasonable offers of repayment.
  • Tell people about free debt advice. Council tax notices and other literature should publicise free sources of held.

'Safety nets' needed

StepChange chief executive Mike O'Connor says: "More and more people are struggling to pay essential household costs. Stagnating incomes, changing work patterns, rising living costs and changes in welfare benefits are a toxic combination.

"Government, business and charities need to put safety nets and protections in place to ensure that short-term financial problems do not escalate into problem debt which can blight the lives of individuals, families and whole communities."

If you're struggling with council tax arrears, first speak to your local council and see if you can come to an arrangement on making repayments. If you need further help or debt advice you can call StepChange's freephone helpline on 0800 138 1111.