Unpaid council tax has soared to almost £31 million – after rising by 16 per cent in the past year, new figures reveal. Arrears in Sheffield have hit £30.9 million – some dating back to 1999 – up from £26.5 million a year ago.

Sheffield Council’s ruling Labour group says it collects ‘99 per cent of council tax’ but is pursuing non-payers and issued court summonses against 7,600 people in the summer.

Councillors say people affected by Government cuts and the rising cost of living are struggling to pay because they have to choose between paying council tax or buying food and heating their    homes.

But one resident who was wrongly sent a summons accused the authority of going after the wrong people.

Vincent Shoreman, aged 44, of High Green, said: “Although I am on income support I always pay my council tax, but my payment for September was four days late due to the payment being made over a weekend.

“They admitted the summons had been sent in error – but then I was told I had a £78 fine put on my benefits by the court when my case was supposed to have been cancelled.”

Mr Shoreman is eligible to pay part of his council tax, normally £15 per month.

Coun Andrew Sangar, Lib Dem finance spokesman, said: “This is a scandal. Once again we’ve been presented with figures that show Labour politicians cannot be trusted to look after the city’s finances.

“Instead of closing treasured local libraries, the council should be looking towards the £31 million in unpaid council tax, which appears to growing day by day.

“The vast majority of local residents who pay their council tax on time deserve to know why frontline services are being slashed to protect tax dodgers across the city.”

Deputy Prime Minister and Hallam MP Nick Clegg added: “We are making tough decisions with public finances because of the mess Labour left us in. It is typical of them to blame someone else for the situation but they need to take responsibility for the challenge of collecting council tax.”

Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for finance Coun Ben Curran said: “The coalition Government, which local Lib Dem councillors continue to support, is making the lowest paid Sheffielders pay council tax for the first time due to cuts in council tax benefit.

“These government cuts have directly contributed to the cost of living crisis which is hitting Sheffielders hard. Many are having to chose between buying food, heating their homes or paying essential bills – like council tax.

“This is not a problem unique to Sheffield. We are seeing increased council tax arrears across the country as a direct result of coalition policy.

“It is worth reminding the Lib Dems that they ran the council for many of the years these arrears built up. This latest political stunt by the Lib Dems is nothing but shameless hypocrisy and opportunism and offers no support to the hard working people that the Government are attacking in the name of austerity.

“We collect 99 per cent of council tax and are determined to improve this further by taking action to collect outstanding arrears.

“It is important to strike a balance between being firm with those who ‘won’t pay’ and supporting those who ‘can’t pay’.”

by Richard Marsden

richard.marsden@thestar.co.uk @RMarsden_Star