‘It should never have been allowed to happen’ #farmgate
- Credit: Archant
Council officers were left with no support during the Manor Farm tenancy negotiations with the former deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, according to the now published Mazars report.
The audit and accounts committee finally agreed to publish the remainder of the #farmgate report.
The report found that the former deputy leader Roger Hickford, was given a “large number of advantages” due to the council roles he held at the time.
The chair of the committee, Councillor Graham Wilson, said the report covered a situation that “should never have been allowed to occur”.
The report said that during conversations with the County Farms team, officers said they felt “bullied and harassed” by Mr Hickford.
They were unanimous in agreeing he was only allowed to deviate from standard practice due to his conduct towards the team and his position as deputy leader.
The concerns were raised with the then Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer Chris Malyon at least seven times.
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On one occasion they did speak to Mr Hickford and asked for an apology to be sent to one team member, which Mr Hickford did.
The report said: “The lack of support from the Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer (Chris Malyon) and the lack of policies in place, would have left the County Farms team with no support to support holding firm on issues during negotiations with Roger Hickford.”
‘This situation should never have been allowed to occur’
Mr Hickford was a county councillor from May 2013 to February 2021, and was the deputy leader of the council from May 2016 until his resignation.
While he was the deputy leader he applied for and was awarded the tenancy of the county council owned Manor Farm in Girton.
When he applied for the tenancy, Mr Hickford was also the chair of the county council’s assets and investment committee, responsible for management of the council’s property and asset portfolio.
In 2017, Mr Hickford was also appointed to the County Farms Working Group.
In January 2019, Cllr Lucy Nethsingha asked for a review of his tenancy.
When the chief internal auditor fell ill in November 2020 – because of the stress of dealing with Mr Hickford – Mazars LLP were asked to conclude the report.
Separately a code of conduct inquiry later found that Mr Hickford had breached multiple areas of the code.
These included bullying, failing to treat officers with respect, compromising officers and their impartiality.
He was also found to have brought the council into disrepute, made improper use of his position, and failed to disclose his interest in the tenancy of Manor Farm within 28 days.
The Mazars report reinforces that Mr Hickford gained advantages in relation to his tenancy due to his position in the county council.
The report discusses issues around the decisions over the refurbishment of Manor Farm, rent abatement, and the change of use application.
The report highlighted that there was a lack of policies around how the council should make some of these decisions. It added officers had given the view that some of these decisions would not have been made for other tenants.
For example, a decision was made for the county council to pay and take responsibility for the change of use application in relation to the barn on the farm.
The report said there was no evidence to show a set policy or procedure for this, but said it was not made clear why the council would fund it. It said this had only happened once before when the cost was “significantly lower”.
It added that the evidence showed it was not normal practice for the County Farms team to undertake a change of use application on behalf of tenants.
The report also discussed the decision to allow a full rent abatement in relation to the barn.
A breakdown of the full costs relating to the tenancy was redacted from the report.
Mr Hickford was contacted for comment, but did not respond at the time of publication.