A near £8 million windfall has helped Devon reduce its projected budget deficit, writes Bradley Gerrard.

Councillors heard that a programme aimed at connecting hard-to-reach homes to the internet would pay the county council £7.8 million as part of a government agreement with BT.

Around 326,000 rural or hard-to-access properties now have access to superfast broadband due to the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) scheme, with a further 40,000 connections planned for 2024.

The scheme is jointly funded with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

These organisations collectively invested more than £100 million into the scheme, which has seen more than 70 per cent of eligible homes and businesses take-up of CDS-funded broadband connections, above the national average.

“Thanks to the government’s agreement with BT, the success of the public take-up means CDS receives a substantial sum [from BT], known as gainshare, on its investment, which the local authority partner can reinvest,” a spokesperson for CDS said.

To date, this payment has been used to fund further broadband connections, but now the government’s national Project Gigabit programme essentially supersedes it, councils don’t need to use the money to fund broadband-related investment.

“As a result, councils who are facing huge financial pressures are looking to reinvest their remaining share of the gainshare money to protect vital public services and minimise the need for budget reductions,” the spokesperson added.

The financial injection means that Devon County Council now expects a £4.5 million overspend in the current financial year.

That’s an improvement of £9.1 million compared to its projections in September and could fall further by the end of the financial year if the council achieves further savings.

However, any overspend will exclude the deficit in its special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) department, which can be kept off its balance sheet as part of a temporary government initiative.

Councillor Phillip Twiss (Conservative, Feniton and Honiton), cabinet member for finance, said the council is “closing the gap” as the end of the financial year approached in April.

“At a Local Government Association (LGA) conference I attended recently, everyone in the councils that I spoke to there are in the same boat, with all the same issues and challenges,” he said.

“But I believe we have the team here to make sure we maintain a very steady ship and put the council on a sustainable footing, which wasn’t the case for some colleagues at the LGA conference.”

Councillor Caroline Leaver, leader of the Liberal Democrats (Barnstaple South), raised concerns that further spending cuts could impact services.

“The big message is that the people of Devon are suffering from the fact there is insufficient money to meet demand, and while there are lots of efforts going ahead to balance the budget, we can’t expect the level of service that people get now will continue,” she said.

Labour’s leader Carol Whitton (St David’s and Haven Banks) echoed worries about the quality of service amid efforts to hit ambitious saving targets.

“Councillor Leaver is right to say that an underspend can be as concerning as an overspend,” she said.

“The former might be appreciated by finance teams, but it can and often does lead to areas where services are not fully delivered in the way residents might have hoped.”

Frank Biederman (Fremington Rural), leader of the independent group, welcomed the “tremendous effort” by departments to save money but hoped the impact on the community would be limited.

“I also think we need more details on how some of the projected savings will be achieved, and what the impact might be,” he added.

Angie Sinclair, the council’s finance lead, said savings had been achieved via an organisation-wide effort.

She added that some of the underspend in council finances had been achieved by not filling some vacancies, and that reduced levels of household waste meant it had been able to mitigate inflationary rises in its waste disposal contracts.