CROYDON COMMENTARY: Have you received your Council Tax energy rebate yet? KEN TOWL, right, outlines the testing problems encountered when approaching the council to get his hands on his money
They say that patience is a virtue. In Croydon it is a necessity.
Let me refine that. In any undertaking involving Croydon Council, patience is a necessity.
It would be unfair to blame the new Mayor – he’s only been in office for a couple of months – but it would be unwise to expect much of a change. Torpidity seems to be baked into whatever the council does, making a mockery of every aspirational assertion it makes.
Croydon Council’s characteristic sluggishness extends to its management of the government’s magnanimous heating rebate.
“Oh yes!” I cried back in February, when Rishi Sunak announced that everyone in living in homes classified as being in Council Tax Bands A to D would be eligible for £150 to help with the rising cost of heating those homes.
“Oh no!” I cried when it became clear that the £150 would come in the form of a rebate to everyone’s Council Tax, to be administered by the local council.
I cheered up a little when I visited https://www.croydon.gov.uk/council-tax-energy-rebate where I discovered that, for the purposes of paying the rebate, we have been divided into first- and second-class citizens. Those of us who pay our Council Tax by direct debit would receive our rebate automatically, probably some time in April, whereas those of us who pay by other means would need to apply for the rebate.
I am in the former group. I am lucky, I thought, luckier at least than those in the latter group, many of whom will be those who need the rebate most urgently.
April came and went As did May.
The council website claimed that they had “been processing rebates for residents who pay their Council Tax by direct debit since the beginning of April. The majority of payments have now been completed – a small number of account holders will be contacted directly for further verification checks”.
I checked my account a few times, Nothing.
And no one contacted me for “verification checks”. Meanwhile, on the fifth day of each month, a £109 Band C charge leaves my bank account and lands in the council’s coffers. Every month this goes very smoothly. There are no problems at all with money leaving my account, just when the money is supposed to go the other way around.
I waited. I was busy with work. I got on with that, and all the while Croydon Council did nothing. I decided to do something very ambitious. I would telephone Croydon Council, to see if, where so many before me had failed, I could actually get through to a human being.
Who knew? If all went well, that human being might be empowered to do something, like expedite a payment o me that should have been made two months previously.
I make that call. I hold my breath. The robotic voice fires up. “You are in a queue. You are number [pause] five in the queue. The caller at position number one has been waiting for [pause] one minute.”
It does not sound too bad. Worth waiting, given that there is £150 at play here. After a mere five minute or so, I am speaking to a real live human being. She asks what she can do to help and I say I have been looking through my bank account online and I can’t find my £150 rebate.
She asks for my Council Tax reference number. I give it and she punches it in and takes some time, presumably reads something on her screen, and says, “Yes, that has not been processed for payment.”
That’s right, I say, its absence from my bank account has led me to the very same conclusion. How can we remedy this situation?
She tells me that she cannot authorise payment – only GrantApproval can do that.
Who? GrantApproval, the branded administration software created by Ascendent Solutions and marketed to local authorities. Can I speak to them? No, but I can apply for the rebate through their system. Even if I pay by direct debit? Yes, she would send me an email with a link.
An email appeared. It featured a link, but the link took me back to the Croydon Council page that claimed that the vast majority of rebates to direct debit customers had already been paid. Fortunately, I was still on the phone to point this out. A second email arrived. This time the link took me to GrantApproval.co.uk. I thanked my customer service operative for her help and said I would take it from there.
Content with my new second-class citizen status, I ploughed on, inputting all my details, all the details that Croydon Council already. You know, like my name and address and the local authority reference number of my flat. In a state of near ecstasy at my own progress I pressed “submit”.
I was no longer wading through local government treacle; I was swimming in the fast lane of the private sector, making my own destiny, winning my own £150. And then I wasn’t.
I was staring at the refreshed screen and the blood red words that sat across the top of it. “Error 25: The Property Reference Number provided was found on the Local Authorities Database however they have not indicated that the property is eligible for these Schemes. Please only contact the Local Authority if you believe this is not correct. For more information contact: GrantsAndReliefs@croydon.gov.uk”.
This was irritating, and not just because of the erratic use of capital letters.
Croydon Council needed to indicate that my flat was eligible for, as Ascendent Solutions would have it, “these Schemes”, and they had not done so. Croydon Council’s failure to indicate to Ascendent Solutions that my Band C property came within the eligible data set of all properties in Bands A to D had not triggered any query with Ascendent Solutions – certainly not of the kind that would trigger my being contacted for “verification checks”.
Ominously, on the same page is the stark warning that “Applications close at midnight on 31/08/22”. Sunak announced the policy in February, Croydon Council claimed it would get most of the payments processed in April. We are now in July, and I have two months to complete the claim and I have just spent another half an hour getting nowhere.
I decide to call the council. After all, that is what I am supposed to do. My property’s exclusion from “these Schemes” is not right.
The robotic voice gives nothing away until it has to. “You are in a queue. You are number [pause] 17 in the queue. The caller at position number one has been waiting for [pause] 12 minutes.” I sob internally. I multiply 17 by 12. It is over 200. The prospect of waiting on the phone for more than three hours fills me with dread. I end the call, resolve to make do with email. If I can’t get this resolved immediately over the phone by talking to a human being, I should be able to get it sorted in a couple of days by email. I have got two months, all the time in the world in this electronic age.
I reply to the email that the council human sent to me, from the CROYCTAX@croydon.gov.uk email address, and say: “Thanks for sending this. However, after I gave my address details, I got an error message saying: ‘the property reference number was found in the local authority database however they have not indicated that the property is eligible for these Schemes…’
“It is not correct, is it? The property is eligible. Please sort this out and let me know. (I would have phoned again but your automated system told me I was 17th in the queue and that the poor sod who was first had been waiting 12 minutes)
“Thanks in advance, Ken Towl”.
I got an automated reply. Of course I did.
An automated reply is never a good sign. It purports to evince conscientious customer service, an acknowledgement followed by a commitment so that the customer is reassured. However, when the commitment is as piss-poor as Croydon’s, no such reassurance is achieved. Here is CROYCTAX’s response:
“Thank you for contacting the Council Tax Department.
“We are experiencing high volumes of customer contact. Due to this, we will respond to your enquiry within 4 weeks.”
I wonder why they are “experiencing high volumes of customer contact”. Ugh, imagine: contact with customers! Heaven forbid there should be too much contact with customers. My response was rash and angry, but it was my response and I am sticking to it:
“Four weeks? And the deadline for claiming the rebate is end of August.
“OK, I’ll give you four weeks. If I do not have this resolved by end of Thursday 28 July, I will reduce next month’s council tax payment by £100 and the following month’s by £50. You can then apply the £150 rebate to my council tax account at your leisure.
“Best regards, Ken”.
Inevitably, this elicited the same instant, automated reference to customer contact and the same feeble promise to respond within four weeks.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. We suffer from poor performance from local authorities because they tend to be led by people who are, at worst, inept and, at best, mediocre.
It is tempting, though, to suspect that a council with all of the (self- and national government-generated) financial woes that Croydon has might benefit from a system that is not actually very good at paying out money. Most people will get their money – and let us not forget , it is their money – by September because if it is not returned as a rebate it will default to a credit on people’s bills, so that their monthly charge will be recalculated. But not, I suspect, if Ascendent Solutions does not think they are eligible.
The customer service agent at Croydon council was at pains to stress to me that I was by no means the only resident who had not received the rebate. All she could do, however, was refer people to http://www.grantapproval.co.uk.
I would be very interested to hear how others have got on.
Have you managed to get through to anyone on the phone?
Are you one of the supposed majority who the council says actually managed to get the rebate?
Are you confident that Ascendent Solutions has been informed of your eligibility?
Meanwhile, I suppose I will have to hope that the credit controllers at Croydon Council show as much patience with me as Croydon’s citizens are expected to show with their local authority.
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