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City Governments, Citizen Public Sector Debts and Debt Collection

This project examines the critical contemporary issue of why local government debt collection practices have become widespread, the impacts of debt collection on citizens.


A growing proportion of English local government budgets derive from the collection of ‘Council Tax’ on domestic properties. Citizen debts are accruing in urban areas for outstanding council tax payments. Local governments are required to collect arrears through court action and debt collection agencies.

This project examines the importance and governance of local government debt collection practices, the extent to which there is agreement in and beyond local government on debt collection, and the impact of debt and debt collection activities on debtor citizens. An analysis of all metropolitan councils and three in-depth case study urban areas will take place.


English local government budgets increasingly depend on Council Tax receipts, which is a tax on the domestic properties of residents. Yet, significant citizen debts for outstanding council tax payments are developing in the context of a cost of living crisis (Collard et al., 2019; Gray, 2020). As of March 2023, outstanding Council Tax debts totalled £4.9bn in England, with debtors facing court and administrative costs of £337m in 2019-20 (DLHC, 2023).

The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 requires and empowers local authorities to pursue the arrears of citizens. It is within this context that councils are increasingly utilising debt collection mechanisms and agencies in which to collect these tax arrears from citizens.

This project examines local government debt collection and the impact of debt on citizens in English urban areas. The latter are examined because they are sites of considerable citizen debt and widespread debt collection practices.

Research questions

The project will first examine: How important are debt collection activities for urban governments and why is this the case?

Second, it analyses: What social and political governance norms and practices are influencing the development, functioning and forms of local government debt collection governance?

Third, it examines: To what extent are urban state debt collection practises accepted or contested by politicians, state officials and non-state organisations, and how does acquiescence or critique occur?

Finally, are urban state debt collection practices negatively effecting the self-control and self-determination of debtor citizens, and to what extent are they mediating and contesting debt collection practices?

Embedded within these research questions is a need to examine the geographies of these debtor-creditor processes and deliberations, and identify the extent to which and why there are differences or similarities between urban areas where there are distinct contextual conditions.



This research was made possible through the support of the following organisations: