End in sight for two year inquiry into deputy leader’s tenancy of council owned farm

PUBLISHED: 14:44 17 November 2020 | UPDATED: 16:52 17 November 2020

Decision time looms for Cambridgeshire County Council after a 2 year inquiry into the tenancy of a council owned farm house by deputy leader Roger Hickford (left). Chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson (centre) has overseen the inquiry with audit committee chairman Mike Shellens (right) awaiting the outcome. Picture; ARCHANT

Decision time looms for Cambridgeshire County Council after a 2 year inquiry into the tenancy of a council owned farm house by deputy leader Roger Hickford (left). Chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson (centre) has overseen the inquiry with audit committee chairman Mike Shellens (right) awaiting the outcome. Picture; ARCHANT

Archant

A top legal firm is working with Cambridgeshire County Council to review and redact documents associated with an internal audit into a farm tenancy for deputy leader Roger Hickford.

Manor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford.  It is now subject to audit committee probe.  Picture: TERRY HARRISManor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. It is now subject to audit committee probe. Picture: TERRY HARRIS

Weightmans has been working with the council’s chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson ahead of the delayed publication of the findings.

Mr Wilkinson will tell the audit committee next week that 300 plus comments and submissions were received and have been reviewed.

However, Mr Wilkinson says the volume and nature of comments requires the revised report to be circulated a second time.

Mr Wilkinson said that when the council ordered the PKF report into community transport provider FACT, it undertook “six plus cycles of fact checking with some stakeholders prior to the issue of their final report”.

Manor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. Picture: ARCHANTManor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. Picture: ARCHANT

He says a revised timescale for the farm audit has been agreed.

November 10- Weightmans revised and redacted documents and PDFs and tailored correspondence to each stakeholder.

December 4 – Report finalised and issued to monitoring officer and chief executive “to consider whether any issues need to be progressed under formal processes”

Previously, says Mr Wilkinson, it has been stated that the report would be submitted, in public session, to the council’s audit and accounts committee.

Manor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford.  Picture: TERRY HARRISManor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. Picture: TERRY HARRIS

“Now that the audit findings are largely confirmed the next steps were discussed with the monitoring officer, chief executive and legal advisors.

They agreed that the draft report be shared (bound by officer confidentiality) with the new farms head of service Tony Cooper “to review, agree and start implementing the service recommendations”.

He says the final report will be issued to the chief executive and monitoring officer with a target date of December 4.

“To ensure organisational confidence, the final report will be shared with the leader of the council and chairman and vice chairman of audit and account committee as a confidential document,” says Mr Wilkinson.

Manor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. The council had agreed a £183,000 investment at Manor Farm and had been in talks with Cllr Hickford to extend his five year lease by 14 years. Picture: ARCHANTManor Farm, Girton, which has been let by the Cambridgeshire County Council farms estate to the deputy leader of the council Cllr Roger Hickford. The council had agreed a £183,000 investment at Manor Farm and had been in talks with Cllr Hickford to extend his five year lease by 14 years. Picture: ARCHANT

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They will determine “what, if any other processes are required, in the light of the final findings”.

Mr Wilkinson says the report “has identified other areas which are likely to require exploration and conclusion through formal processes before a full and balanced picture can be presented to the committee for consideration”.

He said: “It is acknowledged that this may not meet with existing expectations regarding the timetable.

County councillors await publication of audit report into awarding of tenancy of council owned Manor Farm, Girton, to deputy leader Cllr Roger Hickford.County councillors await publication of audit report into awarding of tenancy of council owned Manor Farm, Girton, to deputy leader Cllr Roger Hickford.

“However, Cambridgeshire County Council’s priority has to be ensuring the overall integrity of the process and ultimately transparent and conclusive outcomes.

“The council has also received and is administering subject access requests from the tenants. This is an extensive and complex request.

“The process is supported by internal and external legal advice and has also involved advice from the Information Commissioners Office.”

The way Cllr Hickford secured a tenancy of a county council farm has been subject to an inquiry for nearly two years.

The audit committee ordered the inquiry after this newspaper revealed that he applied for the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, whilst chair of the former assets committee that had overall responsibility for the farms estate.

The issue 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 considered an investment of £183,000 to finance an extension to Manor Farm.

In September the chairman of the audit committee of expressed his frustration over delays in the investigation that began at the beginning of 2019.

Chairman Mike Shellens said: “I really do hope this will get finalised before I leave this post. Handing it over to somebody else would be a nightmare.”

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”.

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

Cllr Hickford wants Manor Farm as a day centre for dogs.


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