Timeline poses urgent questions over #farmgate scandal

Ex councillor Roger Hickford

Roger Hickford told South Cambs Conservatives in 2017: "The county council work load can take up three to four days a week on average. Because of my ability to work when I want, it means I can take on extra responsibilities at and that has helped me take on and fulfil the deputy leader’s role”. - Credit: S Cambs Conservatives

Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha repeated calls today for the full audit report into #farmgate to be released.  

“It is important that more of the full audit is published so the public can judge the extent of the failures at Cambridgeshire County Council while Roger Hickford was Deputy Leader,” she said.  

“I still can’t believe he was in that position so long.” 

Cllr Nethsingha was responding to fresh revelations by this newspaper into how former deputy leader Roger Hickford acquired a county council farm tenancy.  

County council leader Steve Count says it was on his advice that Cllr Hickford left a meeting of the general purposes committee in December, 2018, when a £183,000 investment into the farm was being considered.  

It was Cllr Nethsingha who queried his brief departure whilst the item was discussed – and approved. 

However, the investment was halted early the following year when she called for, and received, confirmation of an audit investigation.  

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The question uppermost in many people’s minds remains that of whether there were conflicts of interest, particularly as 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. 

Cllr Hickford also had a role as members’ champion for farming – but the council thought that was nothing unusual. 

A council spokesman told me in 2019: “The council has a number of other member champions’ drawn from all parties including a community safety champion who has a personal experience of domestic violence,” said the spokesman. 

“We also have a cycling champion who is a cyclist. No member champion has specific decision-making responsibility.” 

His decision to acquire a farms tenancy was something his fellow Conservatives were unaware of during the period leading up to the May 2017 county council elections. 

Cllr Hickford had been invited to contest the Sawston and Shelford area and proudly announced to his future constituents he and his wife “recently moved here after 28 years in and around Linton”. He told them: “I am very much looking forward to helping and serving the residents of all the villages in the Sawston area.  

“Having spoken with residents and attended parish councils, there is much work to be done, especially with regards traffic and road maintenance”. 

He was awarded the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, outside of his division, before the election. 

Here’s a timeline put together on the events surrounding #farmgate.  

27 May 2016 Roger Hickford (RH) appointed Chair of Assets & Investment Committee   

(source A&I minutes 27.5.16)  

19 Sept 2016 RH incorporates Cambridge Dog Centre Ltd   

(source: Companies House Beta)  

Dec 2016 Tenants advised of Manor Farm, Girton’s availability in Dec 2016 newsletter   

(source CCC response to J Elworthy Q10 – 8.1.2019)  

24/26 Jan 2017 RH attends two tenants’ meetings in Stow Cum Quy and March as Chairman of Assets & Investments Committee – 10 farm tenancy opportunities announced   

(source: CCC response to J Elworthy Q4 – 8.1.2019)  

26/27 Jan 2017 Manor Farm tenancy advertised locally and in Farmers Weekly.   

(source: Closing date for applications 10 March 2017 CCC response to J Elworthy Q1 – 8.1.2019)  

3 Feb 2017 Working Group from Assets & Investment Committee met to explore options for Farms Estate   

(source) CCC response to J Elworthy Q3 – 8.1.2019  

15 Feb 2017 View day for farm tenancies Re-lettings advertisement  

7 April 2017 RH awarded tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton   

(source): CCC response to J. Elworthy – Jan 2019  

23 May 2017 RH appointed Member of Constitution & Ethics Committee Councillor details – committees tab  

23 May 2017 RH appointed Substitute on Commercial & Investment Committee (C&I) Councillor details – committees tab  

28 July 2017 Chris Malyon (CM) presents Commercial Acquisition Strategy Report to C&I  

Report “seeks to establish the Committee’s appetite for acquiring commercial assets as a mechanism for delivering financial returns”   

(source: Item 5 C&I minutes 28.7.17)  

28 July 2017 In discussing report, Member suggests that “the Committee should set up a Working Group to explore the Strategy further”   

(source: minutes- C&I 28.7.17)  

14 Aug 2017 RH incorporates Canine Hydrotherapy Ltd   

(source: Companies House Beta)  

15 Sept 2017 CM presents report to formalise set up of County Farms Estate Working Group (EWG)   

(source: Item 9 – C&I 15.9.17)  

15 Sept 2017 EWG Terms of Reference document includes: “The Working Group will have the authority to shape and make decisions regarding the County Farms Estate’s strategic objectives and policies as part of the review for the benefit of the Council and the Estate.”   

(source: Item 9 Appendix 1 – C&I 15.9.17 - word “decisions” amended to “proposals” in minutes)  

15 Sept 2017 “The Chairman proposed with the agreement of Members that the membership of the Working Group be increased to 6 Members and that the appointment of a Member Champion for the County Farms Estate would be made by the Working Group.”  

(source minutes – C&I 15.9.17)  

15 Sept 2017 RH appointed to County Farms Estate Working Group as one of the two new Members not already on the 4 Member list in the Terms of Reference document Minutes   

(source: C&I 15.9.17)  

3 Oct 2017 Un-minuted meeting of County Farms Estate Working Group. RH appointed Member Champion for the County Farms Estate?   

(source CCC response to J Elworthy Q3 – 8.1.2019)  

11 Oct 2017 – Cllr Hickford & partner move into Manor Farm, Girton? 

(Source: Whistleblower) 

20 Oct 2017 Overview of draft Revenue Programme under the remit of the C&I Committee includes the following proposal to maximise returns on the Farms Estate: “selling part of their portfolio to existing tenants so that the funds generated can contribute towards council savings targets”   

Under ‘maximising returns on the farms estate (income target £500K) the committee agreed this summary from CM.  

We will invest further in our farms estates to achieve additional income from commercial opportunities. Cambridgeshire County Council has the largest county farms estate in the UK.   

In the past year we have launched successful schemes such as the Soham solar farm and this proposal considers more income generating schemes along these lines to increase our returns in the coming years.  

 The total benefit may come from a range of approaches including: using land assets for renewable energy initiatives (i.e., solar or wind farms) providing waste management services, increasing income from rent by investing in the estate and selling part of their portfolio to existing tenants so that the funds generated can contribute towards council savings targets   

The commercial Board has agreed to form a dedicated working group to explore this business case further and that we will also use the Outcome Focused Review approach to consider our model.   

Initial workshops to scope the review will be completed in early October with a proposal going to the Commercial and Investment Committee in early 2018  

This proposal is carried forward to General Purposes Committee (GPC) business case F/R 7.109 (not part of agenda) on 23 Jan 2018 and subsequently included in 2018/19 budget agenda document pack [GPC Vice Chairman is Cllr Hickford – who does not declare his interest as sitting tenant] 

(source C&I 20.10.17 p88, para 4.7 + GPC 23.1.2018 Minutes)

20 Oct 2017 RH appointed County Farms Member of “Outcome Focused Reviews”   

(source: Minutes – C&I – 20.10.17)  

Dec 2017 Architect’s date on plans of both Manor Farm extension plans South Cambs DC  

1 Jan 2018 RH changes address of his two dog businesses and two financial consulting businesses to Manor Farm, Girton  

(source: Companies House Beta)  

26 Jan 2018 RH presents Rural Assets OFR. Resolved to progress the Rural Assets OFR to the Phase 3 Design Stage   

(source: C&I – 26.1.18 Minutes)  

26 Jan 2018 RH’s OFR report contains the following passage, hinting at logic of selling off some CFE properties: “The Council’s position as a rural asset landlord stems from after the First World War when it was established to assist with the employment and settlement of ex-servicemen.   

Historically, ever increasing land values have justified asset retention. However, there are no guarantees that previous increases in capital values will continue at the same rate, or at all.   

Phase 3 of the OFR provides the opportunity to revisit the current approach and consider alternative strategies.”   

(source: C&I Item 3 – 26.01.18)  

6 Feb 2018 – CCC Full Council.  Cllr Count proposes and Cllr Hickford seconds motion to approve Council’s Business Plan & Budget Proposals 2018-23, including Business Plan F/R.7.109 Commercial Income - Maximising Return on the County Farms Estate (which contains proposal for “selling part of their portfolio to existing tenants so that the funds generated can contribute towards council savings targets).

 Cllr Hickford does not declare his pecuniary interest as a sitting tenant. 

(source: Full Council 6.2.2018 Minutes, pp1,2) 

27 Feb 2018 CCC Planning application registered for 1st (larger) extension to Manor Farm (refused 24 April 2018) South Cambs DC  

May 2018 Architect’s date on both Manor farm barn change of use plans South Cambs DC  

14 May 2018 CCC Planning application registered for 2nd (smaller) extension to Manor Farm (approved 18 June 2018) South Cambs DC  

26 July 2018 RH submitted planning application registered for change of use to Manor Farm barn (withdrawn 20 Sept 2018) South Cambs DC  

23 Nov 2018 RH resubmitted planning application registered for change of use to Manor Farm barn (approved 5 March 2019) South Cambs DC  

14 Dec 2018 Commercial & Investment Committee resolves to: “consider and recommend to GPC to approve £183K of prudential borrowing for the Manor Farm, Girton – House Extension project, together with revised tenancy terms.”   

The name of the tenant was not revealed.  

(source: C&I Item 8 minutes 14.12.18)  

18 Dec 2018 General Purposes Committee approves £183,000 of additional prudential borrowing in 2018/19 for Manor Farm, Girton “house extension scheme”   

Vice chairman Roger Hickford leaves the meeting. We learn later on the advice of leader Steve Count.  

Hickford’s tenancy becomes public knowledge. He had previously registered Manor Farm on his declaration of interests at Shire Hall but few noticed.   

(source: GPC minutes 18.12.18 and statement from Cllr Count, March 2021) 

March 2021:  

Hickford quits after reading results of two-year audit investigation. He lashes out at county council management. Threatens legal action. Blames the county council for a “series of broken promises”. 

County council throws blanket over the damning report. 

Audit committee threatened with legal action if they leak it or any part of it.  

Council leader Steve Count accepts resignation of his deputy leader. He thanks Cllr Hickford “for his years of service in his role as a councillor and the support he has given me over the years as my deputy leader.”