‘Frustrated’ chairman questions delay into inquiry looking at farm tenancy awarded to deputy council leader

The chairman of the audit and accounts committee of Cambridgeshire County Council expressed frustration over delays to a probe into the awarding the tenancy of a council owned farm to deputy leader Cllr Roger Hickford.

Cllr Mike Shellens told the September meeting of the committee: “I really do hope this will get finalised before I leave this post. Handing it over to somebody else would be a nightmare.”

The inquiry began at the beginning of 2019 following the disclosure that Cllr Hickford was the new tenant of the Manor Farm, Girton, with a five-year lease and talks under way to increase it by 14 years.

Cllr Peter Hudson said: “This committee has expected it for such a long time. I really want to know why we have not seen it and when we are going to see it please?”

Duncan Wilkinson, chief internal auditor, said: “The matter is subject to detailed legal advice and as chief internal auditor, I have to take that advice and abide by that advice.

“The audit work is largely done and we are into the process of fact-checking.

“The draft audit report was provided to those concerned for accuracy checking on August 17, consistent with some revised timelines we agreed with key stakeholders.

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“We received the last of the submissions in response to that draft late last night (September 21) and we are now working through those responses urgently.”

He said: “I have given a number of assurances, particularly to Gillian Beesley, the chief executive, that as and when there is work for the audit team to progress the matter, resources are then applied to the matter.

“I can give the committee the reassurance that the matter is progressing, albeit I must have proper regard to the legal advice for that reason I’m afraid I am unable to give any more information on timelines I’ve just outlined.”

He added: “The issue is subject to legal exchanges now and in that respect, when the lawyers are giving advice on next steps or the process, I have to abide by that.

“One of those things I have to abide by is the legal advice on confidentiality on what I can and cannot say in a public environment and that what I am adhering to now.”

Cllr Shellens told him: “I am as frustrated or possibly I am more frustrated than you.

“As we come up for every meeting, I am going to find out something. I have been pressing Duncan for 18 months now because it has gone on and on and on. I am still no wiser.”

Mr Wilkinson: “I do not want to describe myself as frustrated in this process.

“I would just give the reassurance to the committee that from day one, we always recognised that this was a particularly sensitive issue that we would look at that is not giving any indication of outcome or any indication of audit opinion.

“We always knew from the very first instant we thought that was coming towards audit that it was going to be a sensitive issue and would need to be prioritised.

“We have constantly applied this principle to this.”

He said: “It has been a frustrating process but actually, it’s something that’s got to be done properly, which is why we, at times, have to take legal advice and follow that legal advice when it’s given.”

Cllr Shellens said: “Duncan started that contribution by saying he did not want to say he was frustrated. I certainly am.”

Although Cllr Hickford had declared his tenancy on his register of interests, few of his colleagues had been aware until the December, 2018, general purposes committee.

The committee had been asked to rubber stamp a £183,000 investment at Manor Farm, previously approved by the commercial and investment committee.

There is no suggestion Cllr Hickford has done anything wrong or acted improperly, but Lib Dem leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha queried the “really shocking lack of transparency about it”.

She also questioned Cllr Hickford’s role as the lead member for a review of the county farms estate when he was himself a tenant;

Cllr Hickford said he had been honest and upfront about his connection with Manor Farm and said all his interests had been listed for all to see.

He wants to use Manor Farm as a luxury spa for dogs. A hydrotherapy pool, training and day care facilities for up to 32 dogs are envisaged, providing jobs for up to 10 people.