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Council redirects broadband cash

Thursday, 1 February 2024 08:38

By Bradley Gerrard, local democracy reporter

Image: Stephen Phillips / Unsplash

Funds will balance budget instead

A row has erupted over Devon’s plans to redirect nearly £8 million initially intended for rolling out rural broadband into its general coffers.

Some residents, together with MP Richard Foord (Liberal Democrat, Tiverton and Honiton), have criticised Devon County Council’s decision to use money it is getting back from a scheme to connect some of the county’s most rural homes and businesses to fibre broadband to support its wider budget.

The Connecting Devon & Somerset (CDS) initiative was jointly funded by Devon and Somerset councils, as well as central government money and EU funding. Now Devon is receiving a clawback payment from BT.

A council report revealed earlier this month that it would use the cash to help it balance its budget, but some people in the county who struggle with poor internet speeds, or even have no connection, believe the cash should be spent on helping them get connected.

The council, however, says that the government’s Project Gigabit is now taking on efforts to connect hard-to-reach places, and it has been told  it can use the clawback cash as it pleases.

Graham Long, a management consultant and councillor on Upottery Parish Council, felt redirecting the cash is wrong.

“The clawback from phase one and two has been used by every other county in England to reinvest in broadband, and it should be reinvested in that way here, just as they have  done with the £6 million of clawback they have already received from BT, ” he said.

“To say as a council that they have a loss and so they want to put this money into the general purse is, I would argue, not legal, as some of this public money came from the district councils as well as the two county councils together with a small amount of EU monies.”

He added that if the cash wasn’t used for broadband, Devon and Somerset would continue to be two of the worst counties in England for broadband.

“I argue that broadband should be treated as an essential utility, just as water and electricity are,” he said.

Steve Horner, a farmer and vice chair of Yarcombe Parish Council, said he is “so angry” about Devon’s decision.

“Yarcombe has no sensible broadband, and Otterford down to the M5 is similar, as contracts issued under CDS have not been finished,” he said.

“The farming community now relies more and more on broadband due to the huge forms we have to fill in, and the only reason I have 4G signal to my mobile phone is thanks to our former MP Neil Parish who managed to get a mast fitted to one of my barns.”

Mr Horner’s home-based internet comes through a dish, aerial and router fixed to a barn.

Mr Foord raised a question in parliament last week about Devon’s decision. “It was recently revealed that Devon County Council is using its broadband clawback money to close its deficit,” he said.

“£7.8 million was intended for improving broadband across rural areas. Countryside connectivity is absolutely key to boosting businesses so they can pay their taxes.

“What does the minister plan for next year when Devon’s finance chiefs put their hand down the sofa and find they’ve spent millions intended for broadband on paying day-to-day direct debits?”

A Devon County Council spokesperson said legal advice had been soughtand that there are no legal constraints to stop it reinvesting its share of the clawback money “for purposes other than broadband.”

It explained that “funding is a return on our local authority investment and it’s being used to support vital public services for the young and vulnerable adults.”

The spokesperson added that the government is investing £5 billion through something called Project Gigabit, managed by an outside provider “leaving no scope for local authorities to invest in broadband.”

“Local programmes like Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) have effectively been stood down from any direct involvement and investment in new or future contracts,” the spokesperson added.

A Department for Science, Industry and Technology (DSIT) said Devon and Somerset are among several areas in the procurement phase for Project Gigabit schemes.

“This is standard procedure and a vital step which will ensure public money is spent wisely, and communities receive maximum value-for-money,” the spokesperson said.

“These discussions are ongoing and commercially sensitive.”

DSIT confirmed that North Somerset and South West Devon are included in one of several upcoming procurements, expected to launch this summer.

All other parts of Devon and Somerset are covered by separate procurements which are already live.

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