We investigate how Cambridgeshire County Council deputy leader Roger Hickford secured a county council farm tenancy and a £183,000 investment and why he is yet to pay the full rent
- Credit: Archant
More than a year after he moved into his county council farm, deputy council leader Roger Hickford continues to enjoy a reduced rent whilst preparation for work on his new home is under way.
“Currently this tenancy is subject to a rent abatement,” said a council spokesman “The abatement (this is not a rebate) – is normal where a part of the holding cannot be used from the outset.”
Quite what part cannot be used and how Cllr Hickford became a tenant is a complex and complicated story – and is only now being scrutinised more closely after it happened without many of his colleagues becoming aware of it.
As of today the issue has been referred to the audit and accounts committee of the county council by Lib Dem leader Lucy Nethsingha who has set out seven questions to which she would like answers.
Among issues she wants investigated are whether “Cllr Hickford influenced the criteria for judging tenancies in the two years prior to obtaining a tenancy for himself”.
She also wants assurances about “the relationship Cllr Hickford had with officers in the county farms department at Shire Hall, and whether these relationships might be expected to influence their ability to make unbiased judgements of any tenancy application made by Cllr Hickford.”
She said she was particularly concerned about reports that Cllr Hickford having “frightened members of staff in the county farms department; if this was the case it could have influenced officers judgements when awarding a tenancy.”
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Other questions cover the rent reduction Cllr Hickford enjoys, details of the business case he submitted, and whether greater openness and transparency might have been expected.
Cllr Nethsingha has also questioned the wisdom of the investment and whether it was “appropriate for Roger Hickford to be the lead member for the outcome focused review of the county farms estate when he was himself a tenant of the estate and whether it was appropriate for him to be the member champion for the estate”. These issues are touched on throughout our report.
Cllr Hickford – who as deputy leader draws £20,627 a year on top of his basic allowance of £10,315 – applied for the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, whilst chairman of the former assets committee that has overall responsibility for the council’s farms estate.
On May 19 2017, and two weeks after being re-elected to the council (he is now the member for Sawston and Shelford) he declared his tenancy of Manor Farm on his register of pecuniary interests at Shire Hall. The following month it was revealed that he was no longer chairman of the assets committee which was renamed the commercial and investment committee of which he is a substitute member.
However Cllr Hickford failed to declare when attending a farms forum in 2018 that he was a tenant of the council, technically permissible but some councillors who were unaware of his tenancy believe in the spirit of openness he should have made that fact known.
Those same councillors now scrutinising his tenancy also wonder if his appointment – in October 2017 – as county farms champion to have been unwise.
“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.”
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.
A county council spokesman has apologised for failing to make clear Cllr Hickford’s membership, as substitute, of the commercial and investment committee.
“This is an error on an earlier answer,” said the spokesman. “Cllr Hickford was not a ‘substantive’ member of the committee, eg a regular member, but was on the list of substitute members for this committee which means he attends if a ‘substantive’ member can’t.
“He did attend the committee as a substitute on May 23, 2018; there were no matters in respect of the farms estate.”
The spokesman said democratic services had highlighted that Cllr Hickford was not a ‘substantive’ member of the commercial committee “and I removed the word substantive as I thought it would be confusing.”
The issue only came into the public domain following the December 2018 meeting of the general purposes committee that ratified an earlier decision of the commercial and investment committee to plough money into nine acre Manor Farm.
That was when Cllr Hickford declared an interest and left the meeting whilst the committee ratified an investment of £183,000 to finance an extension to Manor Farm – an application that the county council had supported on Cllr Hickford’s behalf to the planning authority at South Cambs District Council.
“Cllr Hickford will pay an increased rent that equates to seven per cent of the final bill – and will be on top of the full rent,” said a spokesman.
But we are far from reaching that stage. Although Cllr Hickford agreed a five year tenancy, the council are looking to extend the lease “for a further 14 years” once the improvements are carried out. Time enough, says the council, to “ensure a sufficient period to payback the initial investment. This would be an exception to the council’s policy which links tenancy length to the retirement age although there have been a number of limited variations”.
By comparison with the other 200 tenants of the council’s 34,000 acre rural estate, Manor Farm at Girton is modest.
But it provided its previous incumbents with a living for five decades and is about to enter a new phase under the stewardship of Roger Hickford.
A series of planning applications to South Cambridgeshire District Council last year paved the way for the extension to the £400,000 farmhouse and a barn conversion to provide a luxury spa for dogs that will create the income to sustain this part of rural Cambridgeshire. A hydrotherapy pool, training and day care facilities for up to 32 dogs are envisaged, providing jobs for up to 10 people.
Until recently the county council targeted young first timers into farming and as recently as three years ago the average age of its tenants was 30. Cllr Hickford is in his mid to late 50s and is benefitting from ‘ongoing fiscal restraints’ that has encouraged diversification both in what activities are carried out on and the age range of those picking up a tenancy.
The spokesman said: “We would not offer an extension to anyone who does not have a suitable business plan.”
The council insists that in February of 2017 when the tenancy was advertised Cllr Hickford was free to apply along with anyone else.
The spokesman said they received “nine applications, five of which were for livestock enterprises, two equestrian enterprises which would require a change of use and one hobby farm which did not include a business element to the proposed use”. No councillor was involved in the decision to award the tenancy to Cllr Hickford.
Informed sources within the county council have given an indication of what life was like within the farms estate department as Cllr Hickford’s tenancy application went through.
“We all felt awkward when we discovered Roger had applied for the tenancy,” one source told me. “We said to our manager – can you help? We asked if it was right for Cllr Hickford to apply.
“We were told to treat him as another applicant”.
Our source described Cllr Hickford as “too powerful” with staff, including the managers, reluctant to challenge his demands.
“No one wanted to put their head on the line by challenging him,” said my source.
Once he had obtained the tenancy Cllr Hickford attended a strategic review meeting of the farms estate and, says my source, suggested weaker parts of the estate could be sold to existing tenants.
The council described this meeting – attended by other councillors – as a sounding board for increasing revenue. No minutes were kept but the spokesman said council officers were not aware whether Cllr Hickford said during the course of it he was a tenant “but this would have been covered by his entry in members’ interests anyway”.
Final recommendations of that forum, said the spokesman, did not include plans to sell off the estate “to its tenants or to anyone else”.
What is clear from our investigation is that Cllr Hickford exerted influence with the county farms estate in his roles as deputy leader, committee chairman and prospective tenant.
“He was very awkward to deal with – very pushy,” said our source. “On one occasion he made a member of staff cry”.
One senior Tory councillor told me: “The failure in this case pro-actively and entirely voluntarily to disclose the tenancy with greater openness than was technically required was a political mistake and miscalculation, in my opinion.”
The councillor added: “I get the impression that very few councillors were aware that Roger had this tenancy prior to the general purposes committee meeting which dealt with the improvement investment.”
That was certainly true in the case of Cllr Nethsingha who said: “My concern is there is a really shocking lack of transparency about it.
“It seems no one apart from a small circle of people knew about it. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with the loan itself, but the transparency of the process stinks.
“Cllr Hickford and the county officers made a serious misjudgement in treating Cllr Hickford’s tenancy application as just the same as any other application and also in believing that because his tenancy was on his register of members interests that were all that was required for transparency.”
Cllr Nethsingha said: “Cllr Hickford failed to notify the commercial and investment committee of his interest in council tenancies when he was appointed to the working group in September 2017, and again failed to inform the committee that he had an interest in October 2017 when he was appointed county farms champion.
“Personally I feel this shows poor judgement and a lack of transparency. It reduces trust in councillors to have full regard for transparency.”
She added: “I also feel that the commercial and investment committee was let down by the officers’ failure to inform them of the situation regarding this tenancy at the meeting in December 2018.
“Councillors normally feel confident to rely on the good judgement of officers and their good faith in advising on what are sensible investment decisions for the council.”
“Had it been known that Cllr Hickford was the tenant I am quite sure the application would have received a greater level of scrutiny, as it should have done.”
In recent months Cllr Hickford has been unwell and has missed some council duties and is recovering at home.
Before Christmas however he assured local democracy reporter Josh Thomas that he had been completely honest and upfront about his connection with Manor Farm, and said all his interests had been listed for all to see.