Mail Misinformation

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story about the London Borough where I live. It was entitled “The brightest spot in Britain: Wandsworth named brainiest place with 54% of residents having a degree“.

The story did pretty much what you’d expect from the headline. The ONS have produced study which measures the percentage of the population that has degrees. And Wandsworth came top of the list. Not really all that interesting.

What grabbed my interest was a throwaway line in the middle of the article.

For decades, Wandsworth was the only place in the country that didn’t charge council tax and now its 300,000 residents still enjoy the lowest rate.

Now, I’ve lived in Wandsworth for long time. I moved to Earlsfield in 1988, moved to Tooting a year later and then on to Balham in 1991 where I’ve lived ever since. I’ve paid my share of local taxes to Wandsworth Borough Council and I’ve paid close attention to what I’ve been paying in that time. And what “Daily Mail Reporter” writes here, just isn’t true.

When I first moved to Wandsworth, local taxes were paid in rates. And they didn’t really bother me as they were part of the rent I was paying. I started paying rather closer attention in the financial year 1990/91 when the community charge (aka the poll tax) was introduced. That was a tax on people rather than a tax on property, so it was no longer part of my rent (my rent didn’t go down though – funny that!) and I had to pay it myself.

For the first year my poll tax bill was about £140. In the second and third years it was nothing. Wandsworth manage to balance the books without asking their residents to pay anything. I think that is what the Daily Mail is incorrectly referring to. It wasn’t the council tax and it went on for two years, not decades.

The year 1992/93 was the last year of the poll tax. It was replaced with council tax. I still have most of my council tax bills and I’m happy to show them to the Mail. Most years I have paid something around £900. The second half of the Mail’s claim is certainly true – our council tax is definitely one of the lowest in the land. In the twenty years of the council tax there has never been a year that the residents of Wandsworth haven’t been asked to pay something.

But because of some half-remembered story about the 91/92 and 92/93 poll tax, the Mail reporter has fabricated this fact. And, because it has now been published in the Mail, it effectively becomes true for a lot of the population. “I read it in the paper” is a slightly better attribution than “I heard it from a bloke down the pub”.

I’ve emailed the Mail’s “Corrections and Clarifications” column giving them the details of this error. I’ll let you know if I hear anything from them.

Update: I’ve dug out the stack of council tax bills from my filing cabinet. I have bills going back over ten years. These are for a property in valuation band F. The early ones are actually a little cheaper than I remembered.

  • 2002/03 – £575.43
  • 2003/04 – £837.44
  • 2004/05 – £861.69
  • 2005/06 – £880.34
  • 2006/07 – £929.37
  • 2007/08 – £976.68
  • 2008/09 – £985.05
  • 2009/10 – £984.84
  • 2010/11 – £984.84
  • 2011/12 – £984.59
  • 2012/13 – £980.11
  • 2013/14 – £990.56

Remarkably cheap, I agree, but no sign of decades without being charged council tax.

Update 2: I got an reply to my email this afternoon. It came from an anonymous person at the Daily Mail. It said:

Thank you for your email and for bringing this unfortunate error to our attention. We will amend the article in the way you suggest.

And, indeed, the article has changed. The sentence in question now reads:

For two years in the early 1990s, Wandsworth was the only place in the country that didn’t charge “poll tax” and now its 300,000 residents still enjoy the lowest rate.

Which is better, as it makes it clear that we only had a couple of years of free poll tax. But it’s also still slightly confusing as it implies we currently pay a low rate of poll tax. Which is nonsense, as no-one in Britain has paid poll tax for twenty years.

There’s a “updated” timestamp on the article which has been changed to show that it has been changed today. But, disappointingly,  there’s no indication of the changes that have been made.

Also, my anonymous correspondent was silent on whether or not they would be mentioning this in their “corrections and clarifications” column. I’ve asked for clarification.

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