Bullying and insider trader claims pile up against former deputy leader
- Credit: Archant
Allegations that he first asked senior officials within the farms’ estate what rent he should offer to secure a county council owned farm have surfaced against former deputy leader Roger Hickford.
It was also claimed – during a two-year investigation into his tenancy – that the disgraced councillor bullied staff, created serious mental stress for harassed officers, and repeatedly broke the council’s code of conduct.
The allegations are confirmed by a second whistle-blower within Cambridgeshire County Council who has lifted the lid on multiple allegations against Hickford contained in the 480-page audit committee report into his behaviour and actions.
The council, fearing a political maelstrom ahead of county elections on May 6, opted to keep the lid on the report, refusing all requests to have the damning report made public.
The inquiry began at the beginning of 2019 following the disclosure that Cllr Hickford was the new tenant of the Manor Farm, Girton, with a five-year lease and talks under way to increase it to 14 years.
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He beat eight other applications for the tenancy, described by the council as “five livestock enterprises, two equestrian enterprises which would require a change of use and one hobby farm which was not suitable as there was no business element to the proposed use”.
Although Cllr Hickford had declared his tenancy on his register of interests, few of his colleagues had been aware until the December, 2018, general purposes committee.
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The committee had been asked to rubber stamp a £183,000 investment at Manor Farm, previously approved by the commercial and investment committee. Cllr Hickford was not present.
The recommendation for approval was presented by chief finance officer and deputy chief executive Chris Malyon. No mention was made of the tenant’s name.
The cash was to cover professional fees (architects, structural engineers, building regulations), the build costs and a contingency fund. The council also funded asbestos removal from a barn and repaired it “to maintain its condition”.
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.
In 2019 I pointed out to the council that the minutes of the commercial and investment committee of October 20, 2017 record that Cllr Hickford was appointed to the ‘outcome focused review’ of the county farm estate.
"Was the committee informed that by this stage Cllr Hickford was actually himself a tenant farmer of the county council?” I asked the council in 2019.
Their response was that “officers do not know whether Cllr Hickford informed the committee that terms for a tenancy on the estate were being finalised, but the tenancy did not begin until December 2017”.
However, the council also confirmed the tenancy was awarded on April 7, 2017, “and he would have been told verbally some time week beginning April 9”.
On May 4 Cllr Hickford won a council seat for the Tories at Sawston and Shelford without mentioning he was about to move from the division to live at Manor Farm.
Today I can exclusively reveal more than a hint of what auditors found when they delved into the tenancy of Manor Farm that the ex-council boss acquired in 2017.
It is a damning, breath taking revelation of a murky and extensive period of life within Shire Hall, Cambridge.
And the reason why the report is yet to be made public?
“Lawyers were told to put up a case and frighten members of the audit committee into agreeing not to publish it,” says my whistle-blower.
The decision not to publish the report is in stark contrast to the conclusions of the massive probe into community transport provider FACT.
That inquiry, also as a result of an extensive campaign by this newspaper, was published openly, quickly and led to resignations and a police inquiry that remains ongoing.
Gillian Beasley, the chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council, fully supported release of the PKF Littlejohn report into FACT but blocked release of the Mazars audit report into the county farms issues.
Instead, she believes a code of conduct hearing against the former councillor is the best route forward – with possible disciplinary action also against two officers.
Many, including my whistle-blower, believe this is window dressing – a conduct case against a former councillor, who would be asked to respond to the allegations prior to a hearing, is deemed unlikely.
That is a view shared by Cllr Mike Shellens, who chaired the audit committee but resigned when colleagues failed to support publication of the report.
“The recommendation that any such matters should be referred to the monitoring officer would mean that the long grass would be at least six months long before anything emerged,” he said.
“Sanctions available, if any charges were judged proven, would be farcical, new training for a member who has already left the council?”
As for the officers, and given the declared accounts by them of bullying by Hickford, they would, says my whistle-blower, be felt by most as “more being sinned against, than sinners”.
The council has gathered proof, through have sequestered hundreds of internal emails, evidence to support their allegations against Hickford.
They also have singled out occasions – documented in council reports – when Hickford should have declared an interest when county farms were being debated.
For example, he attended a “strategic review” along with councillors and officers to discuss the farms estate.
"This was a workshop looking at the estate and framing how best to move forward as part of the outcome focused review in order to discuss whether the running of the estate could be made more effective or efficient,” said a council spokesman.
“One discussion point during the meeting was whether more revenue could be raised by selling the estate to tenants or others rather than the county council continuing to run it.
“This was as part of a more general conversation about sales and both Cllr Hickford and Cllr Nethsingha took part in this discussion.”
The council, when this information was released in 2019, said they were unaware whether Cllr Hickford declared he was a tenant “but this would have been covered by his entry in members Interests anyway” was how they explained it at the time.
More damning is that the council can show that Hickford asked the rural assets manager “for information what rent needed to be put into his application”.
I asked my whistle-blower: “So he asked someone how much he would have to pay to get the site?
The whistle-blower replied: “Yes”.
So, I put it to them, it was insider trading?
“Yes,” was the response. “He wanted to offer the best price to ensure he got it. It was basically unbelievable behaviour”.
The Mazars report details all of this, and considerably more, including the effect Hickford had on morale, patience and the mental health of those within the 17-strong estates department.
The department looks after the council’s 13,000 ha estate with 240 tenants.
The council became aware on publication of the Mazars report that two officers – the rural assets manager and the principal surveyor – had stepped down from assisting Hickford with his refurbishment of Manor Farm.
“It got so bad that one of the officers turned off their phone and emails to avoid having to have contact with him,” says my whistle-blower.
The council refuses to say whether it paid for retrospective works for Manor Farm while the deputy leader was the tenant.
In the only part of their report to be made public, Mazars said: “The practice of allowing tenants to retrospectively ask the council to fund works they have carried out and treat this as an improvement charge is not appropriate and should be immediately discontinued.”
Lib Dem councillor Graham Wilson asked Nigel Layton of Mazars, in a public session, “How frequent has this been? How frequently has this happened in the past? Is this a regular occurrence that we are finally stamping out?”
Mr Layton, replied: “We have only obviously looked at the specific instance here, so I think it did arise in this instance and I don’t know how more widespread it is”.
The head of the farms’ estate service, Tony Cooper, said: “I’m relatively new to the council, but I understand from the team that it is not a regular occurrence”.
The audit report, although it was presented by an external accountancy investigator Mazars, was the work of the council’s specialised internal audit team.
It was they who also uncovered the behaviour of Hickford outside of the county farms estate.
One department head (I have chosen not to identify him) told of “assertive behaviour and bullying” by Hickford.
The officer told his bosses of his own experience of Hickford “which has had a lasting impact on me and on my confidence in the presentation of papers to committees”.
And there is also the future of Duncan Wilkinson, the council’s chief internal auditor, who conducted the inquiry into #farmgate until last December.
Mrs Beasley says she was alerted to the ill health of the council’s joint chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson.
She says that there was no other auditor within the service with the experience and expertise necessary to complete this complex piece of work. Mazars was appointed to conclude it.
She admitted she was under pressure from council leader Steve Count and audit committee chairman Mike Shellens to wrap up the report quickly.
Evidence within the Mazars report identifies Mr Wilkinson as one of those who “felt bullied by the barrage of the requests coming from Hickford’s legal team when the draft report was published last summer”.
Mr Wilkinson told the audit committee that 300 plus comments and submissions were received and had been reviewed.
So, what happens now?
The report indicates Hickford owes the county council more than £50,000 through a combination of payments due.
Initially the council looked to be challenging him for these amounts but according to my whistle-blower this is now unlikely.
“From what we hear he is being let off most of the money for rent, improvements, etc. There are legal issues about it and we believe they are not going to chase him,” said my whistle-blower.
Mrs Beasley is understood to favour the code of conduct but most insiders at Shire Hall believe this is futile.
Mr Hickford, having left Manor Farm (it is now being offered for rent again) remains critical of council staff for “incompetent project management” as he strove to set up his dog care centre at Manor Farm.
He says he was “forced to abandon” his business venture at his tenancy and leave the property “due to a series of broken promises by the council”.
He said he resigned “because the situation has been made untenable for me to continue.
“I have, at all times, and when requested to do so, participated in the long-drawn out audit investigation. I have serious concerns about the fairness and transparency of that procedure, which have been raised on numerous occasions”.
Cllr Steve Count, fighting to retain Conservative control of the council under his leadership, remains adamant that keeping the report off limits to the public is not his decision.
“The audit committee is in charge of what they allow to go in the public domain not me,” he said.
“I have not been involved in any of the process or any of the advice they have been given.
“This is to ensure there are no claims of interference from me; all I can do is follow their lead and use what they decide to put in the public domain.”
The tenancy of Manor Farm is one of four now being advertised to let.
“The landlord is not bound to accept the highest or any offer,” the council says.