Hickford quits Manor Farm on eve of damning report
- Credit: CCC
Deputy council leader Roger Hickford has left a nine-acre farm and house near Cambridge owned by the county council.
He had acquired the tenancy through a contentious – and subsequently challenged – agreement..
Cllr Hickford has moved to Norfolk, ahead of three audit committee meetings that will review the findings of a 450-page report into the tenancy.
His departure and his decision not to seek re-election in May will not diminish the audit committee’s scrutiny of the report’s findings.
Those conclusions are expected to question internal pressure that Cllr Hickford may have exerted to expedite the tenancy.
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A council spokesperson said tonight (Thurs) the report will be considered on March 5 by the audit committee.
“The papers are marked exempt where they contain information defined by the Local Government Act 1972 (which includes information relating to an individual or to financial affairs of any person) and it is considered likely that the item will be considered in private,” said the spokesperson.
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“It is then for the committee itself to determine whether any or all of the report goes into the public domain.”
Two more dates – March 23 and March 26 – have been assigned for follow up audit committee meetings. March 26 is the final day council business can be conducted prior to go into purdah ahead of the May election.
Among items the committee must agree is whether Cllr Hickford should be asked to pay back any monies to the council in respect of abated rent payments and other costs associated with proposed works to Manor House.
It is also left for the committee to ponder whether Cllr Hickford may have breached the council’s code of conduct and if so whether it would be possible to conduct such a hearing ahead of his departure from local government.
Committee chairman Cllr Mike Shellens decided months ago that the report would be concluded and its findings debated, and ultimately made public. He has not shirked from that task.
In January Cllr Shellens described it as “the most serious and complex item” the committee had considered in his 7.5 years’ tenure as chairman.
Buried within the report are dozens of emails commandeered by internal auditors and more latterly an external audit investigation team.
The report also examines the role officers played in determining Cllr Hickford’s tenancy and whether any undue influence may have been placed upon them.
Cllr Hickford had planned to operate a doggy day centre from the farm house and had agreed in principle a loan from the county council for refurbishment.
However, it was in December 2018 when the £183,000 for the extension – agreed earlier by the commercial and investment committee – went to the general purposes committee for ratification, that the beneficiary was revealed.
Although Cllr Hickford had declared on his members’ register of interests his move to Manor House, few of his colleagues were aware that he had beaten other candidates for a farm tenancy.
Cllr Hickford declared an interest and left the meeting and it was at that moment that Lib Dem opposition leader Lucy Nethsingha questioned the mechanics of the arrangement. Her intervention led to an audit inquiry being put in place that has been going on since the beginning of 2019.
“Cllr Hickford will pay an increased rent that equates to seven per cent of the final bill – and will be on top of the full rent,” a county council spokesperson later confirmed.
Chief executive Gillian Beasley has taken “personal oversight” of the stalled two-year inquiry.
She acted swiftly after health issues forced the chief internal auditor of Cambridgeshire County Council to begin sick leave nearing the end of the inquiry.
Two days before Christmas, she appointed Mazars – an international audit firm - to take over.
Her reasons were set out in a public statement which said she was under pressure from council leader Steve Count and Cllr Shellens to wrap up the report quickly.
Mrs Beasley said there was also the need to release the findings of the report prior to May’s elections and the period ahead of it known as purdah which prohibits much council activity.
Mr Hunter says that between December 30 and January 5 Mazars were sent the paperwork.
Cllr Shellens also met with them “to express the importance of the audit and the need for its timely completion in line with the brief given to the auditors”.
At Companies House, Cllr Hickford is shown as moving his company, R H Financial Ltd, from High Street, Little Shelford to Manor Farm, Girton, on January 1, 2018.
He is currently the county councillor for Sawston & Shelford that includes the villages of Babraham, Great Shelford, Harston, Haslingfield, Hauxton, Little Shelford, Newton, Sawston and Stapleford.
He won the seat in 2017 with a majority of 56 – an improved performance on 2013 when he won the Linton division with a majority of just one.
At the time of publication, he had not responded to calls from this newspaper for a comment.
Audit Timeline - issued by Cambridgeshire County Council
Early 2017 - The tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton, was advertised publicly in line with normal practice as the smallest of ten vacant Cambridgeshire County Farms Estate holdings.
5th April 2017 - The tenancy was awarded
20th December 2017 - Business tenancy signed
15th Jan 2019 - The chairman of the audit and accounts committee received a formal request to review the process leading up to the award of the tenancy and the subsequent decisions made regarding the tenancy.
During the course of the investigation, Internal Audit concluded, in line with normal audit practice, that it was necessary to audit the Farm Services’ existing procedures and bring this together into one report.
June 2019 - The first draft of the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton report was completed.
4th July 2019 - the matter was referred to the police to consider whether any formal criminal investigation was required.
9th October 2019 - Cambridgeshire Constabulary confirmed that they would progress with an investigation.
5th March 2020 - Cambridgeshire Constabulary confirmed that they were closing their investigation with no further action.
29th April 2020 - This decision was confirmed in writing, and audit work was able to resume.
May – October 2020 – The report was completed and went through two rounds of fact checking with key stakeholders.
10th Nov 2020 - Draft final redacted report was sent to all key stakeholders with a request for final comment by November 27.
20th Nov 2020 - Chief Internal Auditor reported to progress to the audit committee, outlining a timeline that expected a finalised report by December 4 which would then be handed to the chief executive and monitoring officer to consider any further action under formal processes.
7th Dec 2020 the Chief Executive was informed that the chief internal auditor was unable to complete the Manor Farm Audit due to illness.
23rd December 2020 - Audit and accounts committee met at an extraordinary meeting to consider this development and resolved to note that the Chief Executive would proceed to appoint an independent auditor to complete the work. An appointment was subsequently made of Mazars LRP.
26th January 2021 - Audit and accounts committee received an update on the progress of the audit and it was agreed to set up dates in March 2021 to consider the audit, March 5 being the first.