General view of the new entrance to Newcastle Civic Centre.
Thousands of Newcastle residents desperate to claim a £150 energy rebate are being left hanging on a council phone line for more than an hour.
Civic centre bosses have apologised after staff were overwhelmed by a huge volume of calls from people seeking help in obtaining the payments offered to ease the pressure of the cost of living crisis.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced earlier this year that taxpayers in band A to D homes would get the one-off £150 boost to help them cope with escalating energy bills.
People who pay their council tax via direct debit should receive the money automatically into their bank accounts, but anyone that does not must apply separately.
There are more than 50,000 eligible households in Newcastle that are being asked by the city council to fill in an online form in order to claim their rebate.
But it has emerged that civic centre call handlers have reported “an extremely high level of demand” for help completing the virtual applications, causing a major backlog of calls.
In an email seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, local authority bosses said that the number of calls had jumped to more than 1,000 per day – resulting in waiting times of more than an hour and a “high call abandonment rate”.
The city’s Liberal Democrat opposition claimed the struggles were “entirely foreseeable” due to cuts in frontline council staff and an “over-reliance” on online services.
Opposition leader Nick Cott said: “In the midst of a cost of living crisis, getting money out to those who need it is vital. The opposition have been highlighting for years that the closure of customer service desks and reduction in front-facing staff makes it more difficult for those residents who might have difficulties with online forms to get their issues resolved.
“This is just the latest in a long line of problems caused by the council’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy. We are asking the council’s political leadership to look at this problem as a matter of urgency.”
In response, the council says it is deploying extra staff to the phones and will extend the line’s hours – though its closing time has been pushed back by just 30 minutes from 3.30pm to 4pm.
Labour’s Paul Frew, the council’s cabinet member for resources, said: “I am sorry to the people that have been left waiting for this money, as a council we understand how important it is and how much difficulty the cost of living crisis is causing people in their lives. We are pulling in as many staff as possible to deal with the high number of calls, extending the phone line to between 8.30am and 4pm, and letting callers know how long the queue is so they know whether it’s best to call back later.
“I want to assure those applying that you will not miss out, applications will be open into August. If you can, applying online may be the easiest option and we are looking at how to make this process simpler. 93 per cent of applications have been online.”
Applications for the £150 payments can be made at: newcastle.gov.uk/services/claim-your-ps150-energy-support-payment
Residents have until August 31 to apply for the payment, after which the £150 will be credited to their council tax account to ensure that all eligible households receive the payment by the government’s deadline of September 30.