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Councils can force home sales: Local government measure could result in property being forfeited

HOUSEHOLDERS could lose their homes if they fall behind with their council tax under new regulations.

The harshest local government tax-enforcement measure yet was introduced in the 1992 Local Government Finance Act, but remains almost unknown.

It allows councils to obtain a county court 'charging order' against a defaulter's home, which can be enforced by a sale. It is thought that a judge would set a time limit for payment before the order is activated.

Such debtors would probably be considered intentionally homeless and denied alternative housing by their local authority.

Yesterday - as the council tax came into force - councillors were confused about the measure, some saying they could insist on a sale, others that they could not. The Department of the Environment took legal advice before confirming that councils could force householders to sell.

The rule applies to defaulters who owe pounds 1,000 or more council tax and is enshrined in section 50 of the Council Tax Regulations 1992. After a sale, councils can collect the arrears if sufficient equity remains after 'priority' payments, such as a mortgage, have been paid.

But councils cannot agree on their powers to use the penalty. Sheffield, Islington and Camden councils claim they cannot force sale of a home, while Kirklees and Bradford say they can.

Hugo Charlton, the legal director of Council Tax Legal Services, an independent advisory body, said it appeared from DoE practice notes that it had been unaware it had given councils the power to force householders to sell.

But David Maddison, policy officer for the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said the DoE had been aware of the provision. 'It is recognised by the Department of the Environment and ourselves that it is a draconian measure,' he said.

'It will be used as a last resort, probably for those who persistently default and have a history of unwillingness to pay dating back to the poll tax.'

Eric Townend, assistant chief finance officer for Kirklees council, said he would use the measure only after attempting to redeem the debt by deducting it from the defaulter's earnings or seizing goods.

Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, said his party had not opposed the rule: 'It's unlikely to be used very often.'

A DoE spokesman said it was 'a last resort' for councils.