Lies, damned lies and tax debt statistics

Swindon Borough Council’s Mr Martin is clearly no statistician. His social analysis skills aren’t too hot either. According to Mr Martin, a league table of wards based on levels of outstanding council tax debt will help them to ‘identify areas that may have problems’

The idea of breaking it down into wards is to help us identify areas that may have problems and see what we can do to help.

He does seem to have a few doubts though.

We have to look more carefully at these figures because for example, Abbey Meads is not one of the places with a lot of benefit claimants

Quite. As Mr Martin clearly hasn’t bothered, I’ll do the analysis for him. Here are the figures – and spin – from the Adver.

Abbey Meads comes in at fifth in the league of council tax dodgers – with over £572,000 owed from 904 court orders. The worst area is Central ward, which is £688,000 in the red with 1,390 court orders. Gorse Hill & Pinehurst, Eastcott and Parks are close behind, each owing in excess of £600,000. The most punctual payers evidently live in Ridgeway ward, where just under £44,000 is outstanding from 71 court orders.

Let’s concentrate on just the three wards for which full figures have been given. In the council’s chosen ranking, they are:

  • Central — £688,000 from 1,390 court orders
  • Abbey Meads — £572,000 from 904 court orders
  • Ridgeway — £44,000 from 71 court orders

I can’t find figures for how many taxable properties there are in each ward. The best indicator of ward size I can find is the electorate (i.e. those registered to vote) at the last local elections.

With the population of Abbey Meads four times as large as that of Ridgeway, any analysis based on totals per ward is going to be heavily skewed in favour of Ridgeway and against Abbey Meads. There are various sums one can do to try to remove that effect.

Ward Debt per
elector
Court orders per
1000 electors
Debt per
court order
Abbey Meads £53 84 £632
Central £88 178 £494
Ridgeway £17 28 £619

From that analysis you could say that it’s not the wards with high numbers of benefit claimants that have the problem, but the more affluent ones, as there the amounts owed – the last column in the table – are, on average, much higher.

Of course, if you pick the other columns in the table, the conclusion is different… but not more correct.