Extent and scope of inquiry delays audit report into how Cambridgeshire County Council came to award farm tenancy to its deputy leader Roger Hickford
PUBLISHED: 19:31 18 July 2019 | UPDATED: 19:40 18 July 2019
Interviews continue and more than 600 emails and documents have been examined as part of a county council inquiry into its decision to award a council owned farm house to its deputy leader Cllr Roger Hickford.
Cllr Hickford moved into Manor Farm, Girton, more than 18 months ago but it was only before last Christmas that many of his colleagues knew he had acquired the tenancy when a recommendation to invest £183,000 into the property came before a council committee.
Lib Dem councillor Lucy Nethsingha called for the audit committee to investigate and an inquiry was launched. It had been expected to deliver its findings by next week but that time scale has been shifted back, the council revealed today. The report is now expected to be published in late August. Meanwhile the planned investment has been frozen pending the outcome of the audit committee investigation.
"The additional investment in the property has been halted until the outcome of the audit is known, which is standard procedure," a council spokesman confirmed tonight.
The spokesman referred my inquiries back to a county council meeting in March when Cllr Nethsingha asked for an update on the awarding of the tenancy to Cllr Hickford under which she described as "slightly unusual circumstances".
Cllr Mike Shellens, chairman of the audit and accounts committee, said then that he hoped the report would have been ready by July.
He said the investigation was a "priority" of the internal audit team because of the issues involved.
"Given the nature of the work it is not possible to provide updates on the work until all relevant information has been considered as findings may change," he said.
And the timeline for reporting the outcome was "conditional on the volume of documentation and information that will be submitted by key stakeholders".
Cllr Shellens revealed that as per custom and practice there would be ample opportunity for those involved to comment and potentially submit additional information and evidence before the final report is published. The report, he said, would be made public by his committee.
The council is yet to reply to my question of earlier today when I asked if Cllr Hickford continued to enjoy a reduced rent whilst preparation for work on his new home is stalled.
The council confirmed in January that "currently this tenancy is subject to rent abatement. The abatement (this is not a rebate) - is normal where a part of the holding cannot be used from the outset".
Among issues being considered during the inquiry is the relationships between Cllr Hickford and officers in the county farms department at Shire Hall.
Cllr Nethsingha has questioned whether these relationships "might be expected to influence their ability to make unbiased judgements of any tenancy application made by Cllr Hickford.
.She said she was particularly concerned about reports that Cllr Hickford having "frightened members of staff in the county farms department; if this was the case it could have influenced officers judgements when awarding a tenancy."
Other questions cover the rent reduction, details of the business case he submitted, and whether greater openness and transparency might have been expected.
Cllr Nethsingha has also questioned the wisdom of the investment and whether it was "appropriate for Roger Hickford to be the lead member for the outcome focused review of the county farms estate when he was himself a tenant of the estate and whether it was appropriate for him to be the member champion for the estate".
Cllr Hickford - who as deputy leader draws £20,627 a year on top of his basic allowance of £10,315 - applied for the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, whilst chairman of the former assets committee that has overall responsibility for the council's farms estate.
On May 19 2017, and two weeks after being re-elected to the council (he is now the member for Sawston and Shelford) he declared his tenancy of Manor Farm on his register of pecuniary interests at Shire Hall. The following month it was revealed that he was no longer chairman of the assets committee which was renamed the commercial and investment committee of which he is a substitute member.
However Cllr Hickford failed to declare when attending a farms forum in 2018 that he was a tenant of the council, technically permissible but some councillors who were unaware of his tenancy believe in the spirit of openness he should have made that fact known.
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Those same councillors now scrutinising his tenancy also wonder if his appointment - in October 2017 - as county farms champion to have been unwise.
Cllr Hickford did not disclose an interest during the period he chaired the assets committee and whilst he was applying for the Manor Farm holding.
It was awarded to him on April 7, 2017 (whilst he remained committee chairman) and "he would have been told verbally some time the week beginning April 9" said a council spokesman. He did not officially take on the tenancy until December 2017.
News of the tenancy only came into the public domain following the December 2018 meeting of the general purposes committee that ratified an earlier decision of the commercial and investment committee to plough money into nine acre Manor Farm.
Under the business plan submitted by Cllr Hickford by which he joined the ranks of 200 other farm tenants of the council, his proposal was for a barn to be converted to a spa for dogs with a hydrotherapy pool, training and day care facilities for up to 32 dogs and jobs for up to 10 people.
The council has always maintained that in February of 2017 when the tenancy was advertised Cllr Hickford was free to apply along with anyone else.
The spokesman said they received "nine applications, five of which were for livestock enterprises, two equestrian enterprises which would require a change of use and one hobby farm which did not include a business element to the proposed use".
One senior Tory councillor told me: "The failure in this case pro-actively and entirely voluntarily to disclose the tenancy with greater openness than was technically required was a political mistake and miscalculation, in my opinion."
The councillor added: "I get the impression that very few councillors were aware that Roger had this tenancy prior to the general purposes committee meeting which dealt with the improvement investment."
That was certainly true in the case of Cllr Nethsingha who said: "My concern is there is a really shocking lack of transparency about it.
"It seems no one apart from a small circle of people knew about it. I don't suppose there is anything wrong with the loan itself, but the transparency of the process stinks.
"Cllr Hickford and the county officers made a serious misjudgement in treating Cllr Hickford's tenancy application as just the same as any other application and also in believing that because his tenancy was on his register of members interests that were all that was required for transparency."
Cllr Nethsingha said: "Cllr Hickford failed to notify the commercial and investment committee of his interest in council tenancies when he was appointed to the working group in September 2017, and again failed to inform the committee that he had an interest in October 2017 when he was appointed county farms champion.
"Personally I feel this shows poor judgement and a lack of transparency. It reduces trust in councillors to have full regard for transparency."
She added: "I also feel that the commercial and investment committee was let down by the officers' failure to inform them of the situation regarding this tenancy at the meeting in December 2018.
"Councillors normally feel confident to rely on the good judgement of officers and their good faith in advising on what are sensible investment decisions for the council."
"Had it been known that Cllr Hickford was the tenant I am quite sure the application would have received a greater level of scrutiny, as it should have done."
Cllr Hickford has insisted throughout that he has been completely honest and upfront about his connection with Manor Farm, and said all his interests had been listed for all to see.
A Cambridgeshire County Council spokeswoman confirmed in January their view that Cllr Hickford had acted properly, and said it was not usual to disclose tenants' names at the commercial and investment committee.
The spokeswoman said: "Tenants' names are never given as part of the discussions at commercial and investment committee as the committee is only considering the commercial benefits of the scheme and return for the council and considers proposals objectively.
"Cllr Hickford is not a member of the commercial and investment committee so his tenancy was not declared at this time; he is a member of the general purposes committee so very properly declared his interest and left the meeting for the item thereby taking no part in the discussion or the vote."