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‘Farmgate report must be published’

Additional reporting by Ben Hatton, Local Democracy Reporter

Cambridgeshire County Council has been urged to release details of a report about the tenancy of a council-owned farm given to its deputy leader following his resignation.

Shire Hall, Cambridgeshire County Council (44862776)
Shire Hall, Cambridgeshire County Council (44862776)

Conservative Cllr Roger Hickford resigned from the authority after the publication of a report concerning his occupancy of Manor Farm, Girton, as a tenant of the county council’s farms estate.

The council says the contents of the report are confidential for legal reasons so the authority’s audit and accounts committee can discuss it at a meeting tomorrow (Friday, March 5).

The matter has been under examination for more than two years, and was previously referred to the police to consider whether any formal criminal investigation was required.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary confirmed in March last year that it was closing the investigation with no further action.

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, who raised the initial complaint but has yet to receive a copy of the ‘farmgate’ report by external auditors, said it must be made available to the public.

She said: “The resignation of Cllr Hickford would imply that the findings of the auditors are extremely serious. It is crucial that the full report is published. If the issues raised in the report are as serious as is implied by Cllr Hickford’s resignation there are questions for the wider council leadership, and particularly on the role of council leader Steve Count.

“Now that this report has been passed to the audit committee, the public have a right to know what happened. As the person who raised these concerns I still have not seen this report. It is crucial the full report comes forward for public scrutiny. There are serious public interest matters at stake here.”

It is understood that Mr Hickford has left Girton and moved to Norfolk.

Cllr Count said: “The contents of the report are confidential at present, for legal reasons in order for the audit and accounts committee to fully consider and discuss the matter. But 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 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.”

Mr Hickford was also chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership. The GCP has yet to indicate when he will be replaced.

A GCP spokesperson said: “Cllr Ian Bates is the substitute member for the county council and will be attending the next board meeting.”

In a statement provided to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Hickford has criticised the council’s farm team for what he described as “incompetent project management”, and said he was “forced to abandon” his business venture at his tenancy and leave the property “due to a series of broken promises by the council”.

Cambridgeshire County Council declined to comment in response to Mr Hickford’s claims.

The statement said: “In 2017, we were awarded the tenancy for Manor Farm to run a commercial enterprise, after an application process during in which a full application and business plan was submitted. I was, at all times upfront and transparent about my role as a county councillor, something which would have been self-evident in any event. Manor Farm consisted of both commercial and residential premises (in which we lived and made our home whilst at the property).

“The project suffered severe delays due to inexperience and incompetent project management by those within the county farms team who were engaged with the project. This team was a very small team in charge of the county’s greatest financial asset. The county farms estates are worth in excess of £300m.

“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.

“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. For over two years I have been frustrated by the council’s lack of responses to my questions and concerns, the length to time taken to get to this stage, and last week I found out that the final audit report has been completed and distributed to the audit committee but that any access to it has been denied to me.

“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 throughout this process. However 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.”

The leaders of both the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups at Shire Hall have reacted to the statement, noting Mr Hickford’s criticisms of the council, and arguing it raises questions over the Conservatives’ leadership.

Cllr Nethsingha said the statement was “utterly extraordinary”.

She said: “He appears to be extremely critical of the council where he was deputy leader until last Friday.

“What on earth does this statement imply about the competence of Steve Count, who has been leader of Cambridgeshire for the past seven years?"

Cllr Nethsingha added: “Roger Hickford appears to be blaming council officers for the situation in which he found himself, yet he and his Conservative colleagues were the ones responsible for the leadership at Cambridgeshire County Council.

“He must not be allowed to shift the blame onto officers, especially while the report remains unpublished, and those of whom criticism is implied are not able to speak out.”

“The fact that this report has been surrounded by so much secrecy is troubling,” she added. “It is clear from Roger Hickford’s resignation that the contents of the report are significant."

Leader of the Labour group, councillor Elisa Meschini, said: “The situation has been dreadfully mismanaged by the Tories as it should have been obvious that there was a conflict of interest.

“Given all the controversy surrounding what has been dubbed ‘farmgate’, it would be best to clear things up and publish the report. Then the public can judge for themselves.

“If the audits and accounts committee choose not to publish the report on this issue at their meeting tomorrow it will be truly disgraceful.”

She added: “If there’s nothing to hide, why hide the report? As ex-Councillor Hickford appears to be trying to blame incompetence in his own administration, then we definitely need so see what the audit report has to say about what really happened.”

Cllr Count declined to comment.

The audit and accounts committee is made up of four Conservative councillors and three Liberal Democrat councillors. The chair of the committee, Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Shellens, has said advice has been received both for and against publication.

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