Chase all those who won’t pay and help the ones who can’t

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We pay up, so why shouldn’t they?

That is likely to be the general reaction to our story today about how councils across the area are owed a whopping £26m in unpaid tax – £13.2m in Portsmouth, £4.09m in Havant, £2.469m in Fareham and £6.356m in Fareham.

And that’s entirely understandable. Because somewhere in that huge total are all the amounts owed by people who have chosen to avoid contributing towards services they still take advantage of.

So far, they have got away with it. That is totally unfair and we have every right to expect they are chased for what they owe.

Because this is not just about evading payment. As Councillor Mark Hook, leader of Gosport Borough Council, says, local authority budgets are set on the basis of how much council tax can be raised. The lower the amount, the more likely a rise in council tax or cutting of services.

With the government slashing the cash it gives to councils, it is even more important that they raise as much as they can.

But, like so many issues, this is not as straightforward as it first seems. In many cases, people have not paid their council tax because they can’t, not because they won’t.

Struggling to cope financially for a variety of reasons, they fall behind with payments for household bills.

The growth in zero-hours contracts has seen many people find it increasingly hard to budget as they don’t know what they are going to earn from one week to the next.

But what everybody must accept is that council tax, just like rent or a mortgage, is a priority bill. If paying it becomes a struggle, seek assistance.

For those in genuine difficulties, councils say they are understanding and can discuss payment plans.

So don’t panic and put your head in the sand. Help is out there.