Did Cambs County Council mislead members over report by non executive councillor director of property offshoot who is yet to join the board?
PUBLISHED: 18:42 22 July 2019 | UPDATED: 18:42 22 July 2019
An arms length property company set up by Cambridgeshire County Council received a first year's trading report from a non-executive councillor director who hasn't attended a single board meeting.
In fact Cllr Roger Hickford, who is also the council's deputy leader, is not even a director of This Land Ltd although the council says it appointed him on December 18.
"Cllr Hickford …hasn't taken up the nomination due to illness and other commitments, although this is expected to happen," a council spokesman told me tonight.
But This Land's publicity agent told me: "I can confirm that Roger is not a non-executive director at This Land. He was invited to be towards the end of last year but did not take up the position."
Yet in May the council received Cllr Hickford's annual report in which he was described as the 'councillor representative' on This Land Ltd for 2018/19.
"The councillor is one of two non-executive directors on this board (the other being an officer) as shareholder representative," Cllr Hickford reported.
He then went on to describe This Land's acquisition strategy for the past year that incorporated 26 sites bought from the county council since April 2018. However on Friday This Land Ltd questioned a previous day's on line report by this newspaper of Cllr Hickford's directorship.
Throughout Friday This Land Ltd denied it, the county council insisted he was, but the issue was finally resolved by This Land Ltd releasing its current list of directors, that did not include Cllr Hickford.
A county council spokesman firstly tried to explain it by pointing out that throughout the latter part of 2108 Cllr Hickford had been ill. The spokesman also added that Cllr Hickford had stood down temporarily from the board pending an audit investigation into his acquisition of a county council farms estate tenancy at Girton.
It means that elected representatives of Cambridgeshire County Council have had no part in the scrutiny of This Land Ltd (except for the county council's chief finance officer Chris Malyon) despite a packed annual meeting believing they had and the council minutes reflecting that myth.
In his report, in which Cllr Hickford did not disclose he was not a non executive director of This Land Ltd, he pointed out that 24 sites of the sites they had bought were from the council and for they paid £67m.
"CCC achieved best consideration on the sites sold as demonstrated by the independent valuations," said Cllr Hickford.
"The acquisitions were financed through loans from CCC, from which the council has earned over £2.5m in interest to date, and will generate in excess of £4.5m interest income annually in future years.
"These developments are predicted to add 1,700 homes in Cambridgeshire over the next 7-8 years subject to the planning process.
"This Land is due to complete on an additional site purchase from CCC in early April amounting to £13.2m adding an additional 150 homes.
"A number of independent non-executive directors have been appointed to the board which have been ratified by the commercial and investment committee.
"This included the appointment of an independent chair of the board, Steven Norris, where the committee undertook the role of the appointment panel."
A council spokesman said: "An annual update to council from appointees to outside bodies is made to council each May- these are presented to council by members not officers, so Chris Malyon, prepared the update, for our nominated appointee to report to council."
This Land Ltd - previously known as the Cambridgeshire Housing and Investment Company Ltd - has been set up to provide an additional income stream for the council.
A meeting of the commercial and investment committee last year heard from one councillor who queried why the committee was being asked to agree the transfer of "very substantial assets to a company where members do not fully understand the reporting and governance arrangements".
Councillors were told that operational issues were the "responsibility of the This Land board; the committee was not running the company".
Another felt This Land had "no mission statement, vision or values".
However councillors were told that the council's role as shareholder meant that they could not compel the company to deliver a percentage of affordable housing. They were told that if the council did that "the dynamic would change and the relationship would become contractual which would have implications for the company's ability to operate in a commercial environment."
The council lends to This Land Ltd after first borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at much lower rates than those available to the commercial sector.
It gives the council sufficient to then invest it in This Land to acquire and manage their investments.
At one stage the council had two directors on the board of This Land Ltd, the other being former head of legal services Quentin Baker. That appointment was terminated following Mr Baker's sudden departure from his legal roles at both Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire county councils a year ago.
One senior councillor told me: "The wider question for me is how all their (This Land's) negative cash flow and borrowing works as they pay up front 'market prices' for county land but despite cheap loans have a whole lot of costs in the 3 to 5 years it takes to get planning and build.
"Then there's the small matter of the property market around Cambridgeshire after the Government's planned Brexit."
An update on Cllr Hickford's acquisition of a county council farms tenancy at Girton is before the audit committee on Friday. Their findings are due next month.