Auditors' probe into deputy leader's tenancy of Cambridgeshire County Council farm and land delayed until at least end of January
PUBLISHED: 16:27 25 November 2019 | UPDATED: 16:27 25 November 2019
Deputy county council leader Roger Hickford will not find out until at least the third week of January the outcome of an inquiry into his tenancy of a £400,000 farmhouse and nine acre county council farms estate tenancy.
Although an audit report was at draft stage in September, one of the reasons for the delay is likely to be political.
The inquiry was called for by the then Liberal Democrat leader Lucy Nethsingha (now an MEP) and officers are mindful of purdah which bans debate on sensitive political issues during the run-up to an election.
Cllr Hickford is being scrutinised for his tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, which only became widely known after he had moved in.
He says he had always been completely honest and upfront about his connection with Manor Farm, and said all his interests had been listed for all to see.
The council has always insisted that the award of the tenancy to its deputy leader "followed the correct process".
A spokesman said: "Cllr Hickford declared his tenancy of the farm on the council's public website as soon as it was awarded and has taken part in no council discussions or decisions about the tenancy which might benefit him financially," the council explained.
"It is open to any tenant to make application for an investment to further develop county farms property. This application was unanimously supported by members of the council's commercial and investment committee who agreed that the investment was appropriate, and offered a good return (7 per cent) for the council, which encourages such investments to improve the estate overall.
A year ago the commercial and investment committee agreed to finance a £183,000 to enable Cllr Hickford to extend the farmhouse but this has been put on hold pending the outcome of the inquiry.
The council has since widened the scope of its audit investigation to include the running of its entire 33,000 acre farms estate.
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A council spokesman said: "The work being undertaken by the council's internal audit service concerning Manor Farm and the farms estate is still in progress and so will not be going to the November audit and accounts committee.
"This is a complex, and 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."
The spokesman added: "The county council can confirm that when ready the audit will be reported to the next available committee and discussed in public."
Cllr Hickford is planning to use Manor Farm to provide a luxury spa for dogs: 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. Mr Hickford is in his mid to late 50s and is benefitting from 'ongoing fiscal restraints on the council' that has encouraged diversification both in what activities are carried out on and the age range of those picking up a tenancy.
There is no suggestion Cllr Hickford has done anything wrong or acted improperly, but Cllr Nethsingha has hit out at council transparency, saying other Lib Dem councillors had previously approved the loan at the commercial and investment committee having had "no idea" of Cllr Hickford's connection with the property.
"My concern is there is a really shocking lack of transparency about it," said Cllr Nethsingha who has since been to speak to county council officials about the whole issue of its county farms estate.
"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." she said.