Council may have to pay back grant

A government minister has pledged that a full assessment of whether a district council has breached the terms under which a European grant was awarded will be carried out.

A government minister has pledged that a full assessment of whether a district council has breached the terms under which a European grant was awarded will be carried out.

Margaret Hodge, the minister for industry and the regions, was responding to claims that Waveney District Council will have to pay back a £685,000 European grant awarded to help build the Riverside Business Park, in Lowestoft, because it wants to take over the site for a new headquarters.

Opponents of plans to build the £40m Waveney Campus on the site of the business park, by the banks of Lake Lothing, claim the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) cash was awarded on the basis the site would be used to create jobs and generate business.

A leading critic, Waveney MP Bob Blizzard, believes the new building is in breach of these criteria and a letter to him from Mrs Hodge said: "Should the proposals progress as planned, I can assure you that a full assessment will be made of all relevant aspects as regards any requirement to repay ERDF."

Mr Blizzard insists he is not against the Waveney Campus project in principle, just the choice of site.

He said: "The letter from Margaret Hodge shows that the whole thing has to be looked at, which is what I have always said. Not only is the council trying to change the use of this business park, they are subverting the original plan by trying to keep businesses off the site."

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The Waveney Campus project would also house officers from Suffolk County Council and the Cefas marine science centre, currently based in Pakefield, and is planned to open in the spring of 2010.

However, businesses were furious when they received compulsory purchase orders from the district council, and claims that the process was not carried out correctly will be ruled on following a public inquiry in April.

Earlier this month, Waveney District Council leader Mark Bee insisted the Waveney Campus project was on a sound footing and did not contravene the European funding because the new building would ensure Cefas did not leave Lowestoft. He also stressed that redevelopment of the site currently occupied by the council would also promote regeneration.

Following the release of Mrs Hodge's letter, Mr Bee said: "Once again, I would like to reiterate that we are absolutely comfortable with our position regarding funding.

"This is a wonderfully exciting project that will provide regeneration benefits to Lowestoft for decades to come and we would happily welcome any assessment of the funding for those who seek clarification."

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said it would be in a position to make further comments once full details of the plans were made available. He added that the secretary of state for communities and local government, Ruth Kelly, would ultimately decide if the European grant had to be paid back.