Council leader under fire for 'culture of bullying' in wake of farmgate scandal
- Credit: Archant
County council leader Steve Count faces mounting pressure to ensure the public knows the full facts behind the sudden resignation of his deputy, Roger Hickford.
Lib Dem opposition leader Lucy Nethsingha is waiting to see the controversial audit report that she called for into the Hickford affair.
“The resignation of Cllr Hickford would imply that the findings of the auditors are extremely serious,” she said.
“It is crucial that the full report is published.
“If the issues raised in the report are as serious as is implied by councillor Hickford’s resignation, there are questions for the wider council leadership, and particularly on the role of council leader Steve Count.”
And, separately, she tweeted: “Steve Count cannot escape responsibility for the content of this report.
“This was on his watch. Cllr Hickford was his deputy. The issue here is the culture of bullying and the financial management at Cambridgeshire County Council. These are under Cllr Count’s leadership”
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Cllr Count has revealed that having read the final version of the audit report, he spoke twice to his deputy before accepting his resignation.
But Cllr Count refuses to publicly criticise the man he has stood by as the growing scandal – referred to as ‘farmgate’ - intensifies.
Instead, he opted to “thank Cllr Hickford for his years of service in his role as a councillor and the support he has given me over the years as my deputy leader”.
Cllr Nethsingha said: “The resignation of Cllr Hickford as a councillor in Cambridgeshire must not be allowed to draw a line under the long-running ‘farmgate’ scandal.
“The circumstances surrounding the way in which the Conservative deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council acquired a tenancy for a farm owned by the county council have been under examination for over two years now, with the report being held up due to an investigation by the police.”
She added: “Now that the county council is finally in possession of the report, completed by external auditors, the report must be made available to the public.
“It has taken far too long for this report to be completed.”
She said the Liberal Democrat group, who raised the initial complaint, has yet to receive a copy of the report.
Now that this report has been passed to the audit committee, the public have a right to know what happened, she said.
She said: “As the person who raised these concerns, I still have not seen this report, it is crucial the full report comes forward for public scrutiny.
“There are serious public interest matters at stake here, and the public need and deserve answers.”
Cllr Count said that on February 23 “I received a long and complex report which was the culmination of the Manor Farm audit.
“The subject of the report largely concerns the deputy leader Cllr Roger Hickford’s occupancy of Manor Farm, Girton as a tenant of Cambridgeshire County Council’s farms estate.
“The contents of the report are confidential at present, for legal reasons in order for the audit and accounts committee to fully consider and discuss the matter.
“But having read the report I had two meetings with Cllr. Hickford to consider implications for the council, outside of the remit of the committee.
“Subsequent to those meetings Cllr Hickford has asked me to accept his resignation as my deputy leader and as a member of the council with immediate effect.”
Cllr Count added: “I have accepted his resignation and confirmed this to chief executive Gillian Beasley.”
It is probable Cllr Count will find his Tory colleagues at Shire Hall demanding a more robust response, particularly ahead of the May elections.
One senior Conservative councillor told me this week: “John, it’s a bloody mess.”
Meanwhile an added mystery over the weekend has been the appearance of a van with CCTV in the driveway of Manor Farm.
Mr Hickford has quit the farm and moved to Thetford – the status of the abrupt ending of his tenancy unclear.