Council won’t say if it paid for retrospective works at Manor Farm
- Credit: ZOOM
Cambridgeshire County Council is refusing to say whether it paid for retrospective works at one of its properties while the deputy leader was the tenant.
Auditors examining the ongoing controversy surrounding ex-councillor Roger Hickford’s tenancy described the general principle of allowing tenants to ask the council to fund works after they had been carried out as “not appropriate”, but did not refer to Mr Hickford’s case specifically.
But despite part of their report being made public last week following mounting political pressure, it is still unclear whether payments were made to Mr Hickford to fund works at Manor Farm in Girton in such circumstances.
Mr Hickford, a Conservative who resigned his deputy leadership position and seat on Cambridgeshire County Council last month amid mounting scrutiny of his council farm tenancy, declined to comment when asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service if he had asked the council to fund works he had already carried out at the property.
It follows a discussion in the council’s audit committee last week (March 5), where councillors were asked whether to release details from a two-year audit investigation into the council’s process leading up to the award of the tenancy of Manor Farm to its then deputy leader in 2017.
The subsequent decisions made regarding the tenancy and the processes and practices of the council’s farms estate.
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Mr Hickford lived in the property and attempted to launch a “dog well-being” business there, only to resign from the council last month, criticising the council’s farms estate staff for what he described as “incompetent project management”.
In a statement released a few days before the audit committee, he said: “I have worked very hard at this project for a number of years and have invested both significant amounts of my time and my money in improving the property and have been forced to abandon the project and leave the property due to a series of broken promises by the council”.
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The bulk of the report of the audit investigation has not been released to the public, but on March 5 councillors voted by a narrow margin to release an appendix – “recommendations arising from the county farms practice and processes audit” – which contains 31 recommendations for the county council’s management of its farms estate. None of the recommendations specifically reference Mr Hickford or the Manor Farm tenancy.
Recommendation 23 of the appendix, compiled by independent auditor Mazars, reads: “The practice of allowing tenants to retrospectively ask the council to fund works they have carried out and treat this as an improvement charge is not appropriate and should be immediately discontinued.”
In the audit committee, Lib Dem councillor Graham Wilson asked: “How frequent has this been? How frequently has this happened in the past? Is this a regular occurrence that we are finally stamping out?”
The independent auditor, Nigel Layton, replied: “We have only obviously looked at the specific instance here, so I think it did arise in this instance and I don’t know how more widespread it is”.
The head of the farms estate service, Tony Cooper, said: “I’m relatively new to the council, but I understand from the team that it is not a regular occurrence”.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service asked Mazars and Cambridgeshire County Council to clarify the remarks, and asked if they related to the Manor Farm tenancy. Both declined to answer.
Liberal Democrat councillor Lucy Nethsingha, whose complaint in 2019 prompted the original audit investigation, said: “Recommendation 23 is one of the most concerning of the elements of this sorry tale which have come into the public domain.
“Given that these recommendations come from a report which was directed at looking into the Manor Farm tenancy, it is reasonable to assume that this relates to that case, as indeed does the whole report.
“The scale of the recommendations made here imply that these were questions which it was important to investigate. It is crucial that the answers eventually come into the public domain.”
The suggestion that Mr Hickford did ask the council to retrospectively fund works he carried out is the first to be made publicly about the findings of the audit investigation as it specifically relates to the Manor Farm tenancy.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service asked Mr Hickford if he asked the council to fund works on his tenancy property which had already been carried out, and if so what the nature of those works were. He declined to comment.
In a statement released earlier this month, Mr Hickford said he was “at all times upfront and transparent” about his role as a councillor when applying for the tenancy.
He added: “I have, at all times, and when requested to do so, participated in the long-drawn out audit investigation. I have serious concerns about the fairness and transparency of that procedure, which have been raised on numerous occasions”.
A spokesperson for Cambridgeshire County Council said: “We cannot respond to requests for personal information about any county farm estate tenants.”
The header of the released appendix suggests shows other sections are titled “matters relating to the Manor Farm tenancy”, “code of conduct and officer disciplinary issues”, and “matters relating to the county farms service”.
Lib Dem councillor Mike Shellens resigned his chairmanship of the audit committee after its decision not to discuss the full report in public.
Conservative councillor Peter Hudson, who voted against discussing the report and the appendix containing 31 recommendations in public, said the committee had been given advice from a barrister ahead of the committee on March 5 that they should discuss the report in private for legal reasons “including the safety from personal litigation for members of this committee”.
Councillor Terry Rogers, who took over the chairmanship of the committee, said: “I would like to inform those members of the public and press watching this stream that the committee will consider what further material contained in the report should be placed in the public domain – so this is not the end of the story, members of the public and press, we might decide as a committee, that further information might be laid before you in due course”.
In 2019 the council referred findings from its audit investigation of the Manor Farm tenancy to the police to consider “whether any formal criminal investigation was required”.
Cambridgeshire Constabulary investigated, but announced last year it would take no further action.