Police give deputy leader Roger Hickford all clear over farm tenancy but Cambridgeshire County Council still awaits own internal audit investigation
PUBLISHED: 21:42 13 March 2020 | UPDATED: 17:19 14 March 2020
Police confirmed to Cambridgeshire County Council this week that no action will be taken against deputy leader Roger Hickford following the awarding to him of a county council farm tenancy.
That decision paves the way for an internal audit team to complete their own investigation into whether any rules were broken when the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, was given to Cllr Hickford.
A council spokeswoman said: 'It is usual in any audit where the issue of public finances is concerned, whether it involves a council officer or a county councillor, the audits were referred to the police for their input and consideration.
'The police have confirmed to us this week that they are taking no action which allows the internal audit team to resume and conclude our own audit process.'
The council spokeswoman also cleared up the issue of Cllr Hickford's 'appointment' as non-executive director in December 2018 to the board of This Land Ltd, the authority's stand -alone property company.
Last summer the council insisted that 'Cllr Hickford …hasn't taken up the nomination due to illness and other commitments, although this is expected to happen,'.
But This Land's publicity agent told me at the time: '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.'
Ironically last May Cllr Hickford's annual report described himself as the 'councillor representative' on This Land Ltd.
'The councillor is one of two non-executive directors on this board (the other being an officer) as shareholder representative,' Cllr Hickford reported.
This Land Ltd denied he was a director, the county council insisted he was, and the issue was resolved by This Land Ltd releasing a list of directors, that did not include Cllr Hickford.
A county council spokeswoman firstly tried to explain it by pointing out that throughout the latter part of 2018 Cllr Hickford had been ill. The spokeswoman also added that Cllr Hickford had stood down temporarily pending the outcome of the audit investigation.
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But this week the county council modified that stance by pointing out that 'the council as the only shareholder in This Land has a discretionary right to appoint two non-executive directors to the board.
'These two appointments are currently the deputy chief executive and chief financial officer Chris Malyon and the executive director of place and economy Steve Cox.
'The whole This Land operation is overseen by the elected members of the C&I committee who receive regular reports and therefore hold the political oversight of the company.
'Cllr Hickford was initially nominated to be a non-executive director but didn't take up this nomination and was never registered with Companies House.'
The internal audit is into the 15th month and the council remains uncertain when the conclusions will be published.
The council spokeswoman said: 'This is a complex, and sometimes interlinked piece of work, and it has always been essential to us to get it right, rather than get the report to any specific meeting.
'We are committed to allowing the right amount of time to fully complete this work.'
It was back in December 2018 when news that the deputy leader had moved to Manor Farm first became public after the general purposes committee was asked to approve 'additional prudential borrowing' of £183,000 to extend it. The council's commercial and investment (C&I) committee had previously approved the works but many, if not all, members were aware that Cllr Hickford was living there.
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 completely honest and upfront about his connection with Manor Farm and said all his interests had been listed for all to see.
He applied for the tenancy of Manor Farm whilst chairman of the former assets committee that has overall responsibility for the farms' estate. Cllr Hickford wants to use Manor Farm as a luxury spa for dogs.
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