Auditor says 'complexity' of the investigation delays final report of probe into deputy leader's farms estate tenancy

PUBLISHED: 18:18 17 September 2019 | UPDATED: 18:18 17 September 2019

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 has also agreed a £183,000 investment at Manor Farm and are in talks with Cllr Hickford to extend his five year lease by 14 years. Picture: ARCHANT

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 has also agreed a £183,000 investment at Manor Farm and are in talks with Cllr Hickford to extend his five year lease by 14 years. Picture: ARCHANT

Terry Harris

An inquiry into the awarding of a county council farms tenancy to its deputy leader has proved more complex than was first thought, says a report by a senior auditor.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

The findings were widely expected to be considered by this month's audit committee of Cambridgeshire County Council but these have been delayed.

Under investigation is county councillor Roger Hickford whose tenancy of the council owned Manor Farm, Girton, only became widely known sometime after he had moved in. Many councillors only became aware when the commercial and investment committee agreed to finance a £183,000 loan to enable Cllr Hickford to extend the farmhouse.

An inquiry into the affair was widened earlier this year to include the running of the entire 33,000 acre farms estate and its 200 tenancies.

Duncan Wilkinson, head of internal audit, will update the audit committee next week with news of the Manor Farm tenancy investigation and associated work.

"The complexity of the Manor Farm tenancy investigation has proved greater than initially expected," he will report.

"Additionally, as a result of findings made during the review it has been necessary to undertake an additional, separate audit of the county farms service as a whole."

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A county council spokeswoman said: "The chief internal auditor has confirmed to the chair of audit and accounts committee that while the audit into both the Manor Farm tenancy and a comprehensive review of the county farms tenancy process is now materially complete, fact checking is still ongoing.

"The fact checking wasn't complete in time for the papers to be submitted to be considered at the September 24 meeting."

The spokeswoman added: "The council has a duty to all parties and stakeholders to properly consider any issue referred for audit

"This process requires confidentiality until these issues have been fully and properly considered, after which the audits will be presented and discussed in public by the audit and accounts committee."

The inquiry was prompted after Lucy Nethsingha, then leader of the Lib Dems on the council, set out seven questions to which she wanted answers.

She also wanted 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."

Cllr Hickford applied for the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, whilst chairman of the former assets committee that had overall responsibility for the council's farms estate.

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