Meet the graduate turned sheep farming entrepreneur who Cambs County Council rejected for the farm tenancy they offered to deputy leader Roger Hickford
PUBLISHED: 20:08 12 February 2019 | UPDATED: 20:08 12 February 2019
Agricultural college graduate Toby Dean – now a sheep farmer and budding entrepreneur- has been revealed as an unsuccessful applicant for the Cambridgeshire County Council farm tenancy that was awarded to deputy leader Roger Hickford.
But while Cllr Hickford battles to get his upmarket doggy day care centre off the ground, Toby has forged ahead with his business that he says was nearly wrecked by the council’s blunt rejection.
“I put in a business plan and was helped by my dad and his friend and I thought ‘well at least I’ll get an interview’” said Toby.
“But no one did – I simply got a letter back a week or so later rejecting my application on the grounds that it was more of a lifestyle plan than a business plan.”
He wasn’t even allowed to look round the house that accompanied the seven acres at Manor Farm, Girton that he hoped to take on.
“On the day I went there I was told a couple still lived there so I couldn’t see round it,” he said. “But I was told the council intended to renovate it.”
Down but not out Toby found fields around Cambridge to rent and temporary units to use until being offered longer term prospects with former pig units on the old Chivers site off the A14.
But with no house to call his own he still lives with his supportive parents – his mum regularly helping out with some of the daily farmyard chores.
Toby knew nothing of the controversy over the council tenancy until recently when his dad Rob read up on it: Mr Dean senior has now been in touch with county councillor Lucy Nethsingha inviting her to push for a review of how tenancies are awarded.
Mr Dean said his son found it “very hard to take” the council’s rejection given “the hours and effort he put in then and continues to do so.” Toby has delivered on his business plan
Beginning three years ago with 30 ewes, growing to 80 in year two and this year has 150.
“I’m going to keep growing the business and hope to build up to a flock of 500 ewes within six years,” says Toby.
“This is all dependent on securing enough land and grazing. It can be tricky not having that element of security that comes with owning land, but I’ve built really good relationships with landowners so far, and I’m confident that I can keep building the business.”
His Cambridge Lamb Company is rapidly establishing itself locally and with a strong social media presence he is finding customers who like his produce and return.
He worked as a butcher whilst at school and chose sheep farming after three years spent at the leading agricultural college Harper Adams that included a year long placement on a farm in Cornwall.
Many of his fellow students went into farm management but Toby opted for country living and the great outdoors – ‘I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in an office ‘– and so a sheep farmer he became.
“I look after the sheep, rear them, know when they are ready for slaughter (that’s the only bit I don’t do) and then find customers,” he said. “I’m definitely getting a good reputation”
Although he works as an agricultural contractor to support himself, he knows being a full time sheep farmer is on the cards.
And he’s lost much of the bitterness about not getting a council tenancy, although only having just found out who did get the tenancy has brought back memories.
“Yes, I am not happy the county council didn’t support a younger person getting into farming – as they promise on their application forms,” he said.
“But many people, knowing what happened to me, are surprised I got turned down and probably as a result have become even more supportive of what I do.”
Dad Rob says after the Manor Farm debacle, Toby “vowed that he would never consider a county farm again which I find very unfortunate given the supposed aim is to attract and support ‘young people who are taking their first step on the farming ladder’”.
He said his son’s application “was well thought out and financially sound” and feels the rejection was on “spurious grounds”.
Cllr Nethsingha is hopeful the audit committee at Shire Hall will pursue an inquiry into the decision to allow Cllr Hickford to acquire the tenancy.
Her focus is on the audit committee re-examining all aspects of the tenancy and she believes both officers and Cllr Hickford “made a serious misjudgement” in treating his tenancy bid the same as any other application.
She said Cllr Hickford failed to notify colleagues of his interest in council tenancies when appointed to a working group of the council in September 2017 and again failed to declare his interest when appointed as county farms champion in October 2017.
The council maintains Cllr Hickford abided by the rules as his occupancy of Manor Farm was recorded in his register of interests at the time.
Many county councillors say they only became aware of the deputy leader being a tenant last December when the general purposes committee was asked to rubber stamp a £183,000 council financed extension to Manor Farm.
However it was later revealed that Cllr Hickford was enjoying a reduced rent and had been since moving in a year earlier pending the works being done.
Part of a lengthy statement issued by the council insisted that “the award of this tenancy to Cllr Roger Hickford followed the correct process, is not a member decision, and was made within the rules governing both council and councillor conduct”.
The statement said that Cllr Hickford was successful as his application offered a well-reasoned business case for a new rural business and he was able to demonstrate how this would be put into operation.
A series of planning applications to South Cambridgeshire District Council last year paved the way for the extension to the £400,000 farmhouse and a barn conversion to provide a luxury spa for dogs that will create the income to sustain this part of rural Cambridgeshire. 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.
Cllr Hickford is in his mid to late 50s and is benefitting from ‘ongoing fiscal restraints’ that has encouraged diversification both in what activities are carried out and the age range of those picking up a tenancy.
A senior Tory colleague said he was “completely satisfied” that the council and Cllr Hickford had acted within the law and on the basis that all applicants were treated fairly and squarely.
But he added: “The failure in this case pro-actively and entirely voluntarily to disclose the tenancy with greater openness than was technically required was, in my opinion, a political mistake and miscalculation.”