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Farmgate: Committee chairman resigns in protest at behind-closed-doors discussion at Cambridgeshire County Council



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The chair of a Cambridgeshire County Council’s committee has resigned after councillors voted to discuss a report of a two-year investigation into the council-farm tenancy of the former deputy leader Roger Hickford behind closed doors.

Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Shellens resigned his chairmanship of the audit and accounts on Friday (March 5) in protest at the decision of his committee, where he was outvoted by six to one.

Shire Hall, home of Cambridgeshire County Council
Shire Hall, home of Cambridgeshire County Council

Cllr Terry Rogers, who took over the chairmanship of the meeting after the resignation, 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.”

The report – compiled through a process of both internal and external audit – focuses on details of the tenancy of Roger Hickford, who resigned his role as Conservative councillor and deputy leader of the council last week, and his interactions with the council’s farm estate staff.' – focuses on details of the tenancy of Roger Hickford, who resigned his role as Conservative councillor and deputy leader of the council last week, and his interactions with the council’s farm estate staff.

While a councillor and deputy leader of the council, Mr Hickford was awarded a council commercial farm tenancy in Girton in April 2017. He lived at the property, and was attempting to set up a “dog well-being centre” there.

On Friday, six councillors on the audit and accounts committee voted not to release the vast majority of the report at this time, and instead exclude the press and public from part of the meeting to discuss its contents behind closed doors.

Cllr Shellens reacted by resigning his post as chair of the committee.

He said: “As I see it, this has been a long and troubling project.

“Throughout the two years I have been seeking the report’s conclusions continually and trying to bring them forward, and I am extremely grateful to the chief executive for using her authority to help us right at the end, when it looked as if we were going to run out of time to help this report to be discussed by this committee, rather than requiring a new committee after May to try and pick up the pieces.

“I was continually very frustrated as progress seemed so slow – we now know in part because the police were taking months to review the case.

“Also throughout, when asked, I voiced a strong preference for total public transparency as I believe that we are here for the benefit and behest of our Cambridgeshire residents who we are here to serve.

“And what I experienced is widespread press speculation and allegations of bullying and undue influence – both of which are matters that the public here have a serious interest in, and would consider they have a right to know.

“As a result of the vote today, a major part of the project is not to be made available to the Cambridgeshire public today. Under this situation I feel the only course open to me is to resign as chair of audit and accounts committee with immediate effect. I intend to stay on the committee until the end of the administrative year.”

As vice chair, Conservative Cllr Terry Rogers will take on the chairmanship of the committee.

Earlier in the meeting the committee had voted by four votes to three to release an appendix of the report, which detailed 31 recommendations that arose from the county council’s county farms estate practices and processes audit.

Cllr Rogers’ voted with three other Liberal Democrats to make that part of the report public, with three other Conservatives voting against.

Cllr Rogers said the decision on the appendix was balanced between the high degree of confidentiality in the papers and the council’s “duty to be as open as we possibly can to members of the public”.

That appendix which was released to the public includes general recommendations for the council’s farm estate, but did not specify the details of the findings of the audit investigation as they related to the Manor Farm tenancy.

The recommendation to exclude the press and public cited grounds that the agenda contains exempt information under the Local Government Act 1972, and that “it would not be in the public interest for this information to be disclosed: information relating to any individual, information which is likely to reveal the identity of an individual, and information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information)”.

The audit and accounts committee on Friday was made up of Liberal Democrats Mike Shellens, Graham Wilson and John Williams, as well as Conservative councillors Terry Rogers, Peter Hudson, Mac McGuire and Ian Bates.

This week Mr Hickford voiced his disappointment at having to leave the farm.

“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,” he said.

He said he had “serious concerns about the fairness and transparency” of the audit investigation.

The statement was described as “utterly extraordinary” by Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, while Labour group leader Cllr Elisa Meschini said any decision not to publish the report would be “truly disgraceful”.,

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