Defra requests repayment of clawback funds

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A Government department has asked that ‘clawback’ funding received by the county for a rural broadband project should be repaid, the Gazette understands.

The scheme to roll out superfast broadband in Rothbury was funded as a separate project to the rest of Northumberland by Defra’s Rural Community Broadband Fund and delivered by BT.

The clawback principle means that if there is sufficient demand for broadband that it becomes commercially viable, the public-subsidy money is then reinvested in providing more broadband access.

But the Gazette understands that Defra has asked for any clawback for the Rothbury project to be repaid.

However, a spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said: “It is too early to confirm this position – discussions are ongoing and have yet to be finalised. We are working with BT and BDUK and hope that we can reach a satisfactory conclusion.”

And a Defra spokeswoman said: “We have provided more than £400,000 for the Rothbury Community Broadband project to roll out superfast broadband in this area. We are not trying to retrieve any of this funding and have no intention of doing so.”

Ward member for Rothbury and Coquetdale, Coun Steven Bridgett, who has long placed great importance on the campaign for broadband in his area, said: “I understand that the Government and Defra have made a request that any clawback funding from the Rothbury Rural Broadband Project is returned to them and not reinvested into bringing superfast broadband to other communities in Coquetdale.

“I am pleased to say that both officers at County Hall and senior management at BT believe that under the terms of the contract, Defra cannot have the clawback funding.

“We intend to oppose this and move forward with plans to invest the money into delivering superfast broadband to more rural communities in Coquetdale such as Newtown, Hepple, Holystone and Sharperton.

“Our rural area should not be penalised for being successful in drawing down the funding and having one of the highest subscription rates in the North East, something which has allowed us to begin clawback of some of the public money invested, so that we can invest it in bringing superfast speeds to more communities.”

Defra’s Rural Community Broadband Fund allocated £460,000 to Rothbury, which was one of the very first projects to benefit from the scheme. However, the contract is between BT and Northumberland County Council.