Whistleblower lifts lid on Hickford tenancy
- Credit: Archant/Terry Harris
Two years ago, a whistleblower within Shire Hall, Cambridge, explained to me how they had been dissuaded from querying a farm tenancy being awarded to deputy leader Roger Hickford.
“We all felt awkward when we discovered Roger had applied for the tenancy,” the whistleblower told me.
“We said to our manager – can you help? We asked if it was right for him to apply.
“We were told to treat him as another applicant.”
The whistleblower said: “He became a familiar figure in the county estates dept.
“A colleague, a woman in her 30s, was bullied and left in tears after dealing with Roger. She was encouraged not to make a formal complaint.
“She was told by Malyon (Chris Malyon, finance chief and deputy chief executive) to not make a complaint because ‘it will look bad on you.’
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“She had no option but to withdraw but insisted on an email of apology.
“Hickford reluctantly sent one to her – grudgingly; she described it as awful.
“It said ‘sorry if I have upset you’”
On Friday the county council refused – once more – to publish the findings of the £67,000, 430-page Mazar report into the Manor Farm tenancy.
It has also not made public how it will settle financial dealings involving Manor Farm.
Sources say more than £50,000 is owed to the council by Mr Hickford in rent and costs associated with the plans for the extension to Manor Farm.
One of the outcomes that has been made public is the council’s urgent review of its whistleblowing policy.
Gillian Beasley, chief executive, said: “The council's whistleblowing procedures are being reviewed by internal audit.”
The whistleblower explained more of the pressure within the estates department.
The influence of Mr Hickford – who quit as deputy leader and as a county councillor once he had studied the Mazar findings – was obvious, said the whistleblower.
Once this newspaper had revealed details of the farmgate scandal in January 2019, “officials came round our department, warning of a mole”.
The whistleblower described ex-councillor Hickford as “too powerful and no one, including the managers, dared challenge him. They were powerless.
“No one wanted to put their head on the line.”
Friday’s council statement said the tenancy of Manor Farm was advertised publicly as the smallest of 10 vacant county farms estate holdings in early 2017.
The tenancy was awarded to Mr Roger Hickford (and his partner) on April 5 2017 with a business tenancy signed on December 20, 2017.
What is not known, until now however, is that Mr Hickford had moved into Manor Farm in October of 2017.
The whistleblower said Mr Hickford took up residency on October 11.
“They took over but at the same time work was being done on the house,” said the whistleblower.
“They gave him a ‘tenancy at will’. Roger forced the council to improve the barn, saying he wanted rid of asbestos, even though hundreds of farms have asbestos in their barns.
“Other works Roger wanted done and refused to pay for prior to occupation.
“After he had the tenancy, he went to a strategic review meeting and said ‘why don’t we let county farm estates tenants buy their properties at a reduced price’
"Luckily he was shot down.”
The council confirmed on Friday that on January 15, 2019, the audit and accounts committee received a request from Lib Dem leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha to “review the process leading to the awarded of the tenancy and subsequent decisions made regarding the tenancy”.
That process will have looked at the financial agreement originally set out for the tenancy and the proposed £183,000 extension.
It was agreed that the Hickfords would pay an extra 7 per cent on the rent annually but until the work was completed, the full rent would not be charged.
The whistleblower found it odd that changes to policy were being made.
"What we would normally offer in a tenancy is a safeguard of a break clause after 12 months if planning is not given,” they said. “Roger got that removed. We didn’t do it because it was Roger.”
The department also found it “unprecedented” that the council were looking to extend Mr Hickford’s tenancy by a further 10 years.
“It was not in his business plan,” said the whistleblower.
In fairness the whistleblower noted that all other applicants for Manor Farm “were hopeless”.
The council statement confirmed that “the audit concluded that correct procedures were followed in relation to the tenancy award process and also the approval of the additional extension works for Manor Farm”.
Cllr Nethsingha said: “I am glad that a tiny bit more information has crept out on the issues surrounding Roger Hickford’s tenancy at Manor Farm.
“However, this very slim report again only covers a tiny number of the issues which were raised by in the full audit report.
“It is shocking that so little of that original report has been made available.
“The public will be rightly concerned at what the implications are from what has been released”.
She was concerned by the audit report’s conclusions on whether Mr Hickford received an “inappropriate advantage accrued as a result of tenant’s position”.
She was also questioned whether his “behaviour towards staff was inappropriate”.
Cllr Nethsingha said: “There are huge issues here for the management of the council.
“Let us not forget that until February 26, 2021, Roger Hickford remained the deputy leader of the Conservative group.
“How could he have remained as deputy leader, being appointed to senior positions by council leader Steve Count, long after this investigation had uncovered serious issues?
“The issues raised were serious enough to warrant police investigation started on July 4, 2019, and yet still Roger Hickford remained as deputy leader of the Conservative group and new senior appointments continued to be given to him.”
She added: “This must lead to major questions about the judgement of Steve Count, and the wider culture within the council where such very serious issues could go unchallenged for so long.”
The council continues to resist moves to get the full audit report released – and the audit committee chair of seven years Cllr Mike Shellens resigned in protest.
If the Conservatives lose control of the council in May, almost certainly the report will be published.
In the meantime, council officers acknowledge there are “specific tenancy issues” and “code of conduct and disciplinary issues” to deal with.
“Other serious concerns were raised as a result of the wide-ranging audit investigation,” said Ms Beasley.
“Eleven recommendations were made to be considered for further action in relation to financial, transparency and conduct issues”
Members’ code of conduct and officer disciplinary issues are on the agenda.
Ms Beasley said both she and the monitoring officer had accepted all 11 recommendations.
These include whether transparency rules were always followed and whether “an inappropriate advantage accrued as a result of the tenant's position”.
They will also consider whether “behaviour towards staff was inappropriate” and whether staff “took appropriate steps in relation to a number of matters outlined in the reports”.
The chief executive will re-consider their ‘Respect at Work Policy’ on how officers can make a complaint under the code of conduct for members and what support informal or otherwise is available to officers in this situation.
She said: “A pulse survey of staff has already been planned for April 2021 on the implementation and awareness of the Respect at Work Policy which has been completely revised over the last two years and it is planned to add some questions to reflect the findings of this audit.
“Finally, in the new municipal year the ongoing awareness raising and training of officers and their managers will be reviewed against the findings of this audit.2
Cllr Count said that “having read the report, I had two meetings with Cllr Hickford to consider implications for the council, outside of the remit of the committee.
“Subsequent to those meetings Cllr Hickford has asked me to accept his resignation as my deputy leader and as a member of the council with immediate effect.
“I have accepted his resignation and confirmed this to chief executive Gillian Beasley.
“I have also thanked 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.”
In a statement to the local democracy reporting team, Mr Hickford criticised the council’s farm team for “incompetent project management”.
He said he was “forced to abandon” his business venture and leave the property “due to a series of broken promises by the council”.
He resigned “because the situation has been made untenable for me to continue”.
Mr Hickford had been attempting to set up a centre for dog well-being featuring canine day care, training, hydrotherapy, massage and grooming.
He said he was “upfront and transparent” about his role as a councillor when applying for the tenancy.
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.
“I have been forced to abandon the project and leave the property due to a series of broken promises by the council”.
He said: “I had already decided not to stand for re-election at the May elections because of the way the council had treated me as a farms tenant and a councillor.
“I felt I had no other choice but to step down as deputy leader of the council and also resign my position as county councillor with immediate effect because the situation has been made untenable for me to continue.
"I am very disappointed that my time at the council should end in this way.
“I have been taking legal advice throughout this process both in relation to the council’s conduct regarding the tenancy and in relation to the audit process, and will continue to do so.
“I have nothing further to say at this time.”