Publish and be damned: 'farmgate' report goes to the vote

How we broke the story of farmgate more than two years ago. A complex report and final conclusions will be debated by the...

How we broke the story of farmgate more than two years ago. A complex report and final conclusions will be debated by the seven strong audit committee of Cambridgeshire County Council on Friday. - Credit: Archant

Seven councillors – four Conservatives and three Liberal Democrat – and all members of the audit committee of the county council face a major public interest decision on the fate of the #farmgate report.  

They, alone, with legal advice close to hand, will decide whether a two-year investigation into the complexities of a council farm tenancy given to disgraced deputy leader Roger Hickford will be made public.  

They can be comforted in the advice from the chief executive of the council, Gillian Beasley.  

She said that publication of the report “is a judgement and therefore a decision for the audit and accounts committee.   

“It will be for the committee, when it sits, to determine whether the reports and papers can be made public.  

“The information is only exempt so long as the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information to the public.” 

If the report gets published this month it will finally lift the lid on the lengths that the former county councillor for Sawston & Shelford that includes eight villages went to in order to gain the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton.  

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The issue has consequences too for council leader Steve Count who is facing a political storm over his support for Mr Hickford in recent years.  

Mr Hickford quit both the tenancy and resigned all council posts after Cllr Count received a 450-page audit report.   

Cllr Count rang him last week and in the course of two calls, accepted his resignation.  

Mr Hickford has now fled Manor Farm, leaving behind a security firm to guard the house and nine-acre farm: he has moved to Norfolk.  

He applied for the tenancy in the early part of 2017 and was given it in May of that year, beating     eight other applicants, the same month he was re-elected to the council. His plan was to extend the house, lengthen from five to 14 years the lease, and use it for a day centre for dogs.  

Although he had registered his interest at Shire Hall, it was only in December of 2018 that most colleagues knew.   

And that was when he declared an interest in a committee meeting about to agree a £183,000 investment in Manor Farm for the extension.  The money was withheld and an inquiry put in motion. The audit committee will debate the outcome of that inquiry on Friday and agree if it can be published.  

Lib Dem opposition leader Lucy Nethsingha, who first queried the tenancy, says: “It is crucial that the full report is published.”  

She said: “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”  

Cllr Count said: “I have thanked 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.”  

The council leader said: “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. 

“I have accepted his resignation and confirmed this to Chief Executive Gillian Beasley. 

“I have also thanked 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.” 

Chair of the audit and accounts committee, Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Shellens, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that advice has been received both for and against the decision to make the report public. 

He said: “I have received serious legal advice which recommends that the information be held privately and that the report does not have a wider publication. 

“I have received serious advice that in the interests of transparency and public interest it ought to be public. 

“And there will be a vote.” 

The consideration of the report, whether in public or private session, is expected to be a lengthy affair, with two further dates reserved for later in the month which could be used to extend the discussion. 

The county council has said: “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. 

“It is then for the committee itself to determine whether any or all of the report goes into the public domain.” 

The conclusion of the report comes at a particularly sensitive time as the county council elections are due to be held on May 6. 

Consideration of the report by the committee has been a long time coming. 

The tenancy was publicly advertised and awarded in April 2017 to Mr Hickford, who was one of nine applicants, the council has said. 

The decision to award the tenancy had been made by council officers and not by councillors and had not been discussed in a public meeting. 

Despite being included under Mr Hickford’s registered interests on the council website, the farm tenancy only came to the wider attention of opposition councillors and the press in 2018 when Mr Hickford left a meeting citing his tenancy as a declared interest. 

The county council’s general purposes committee was asked in December 2018 to approve a £183,000 extension of the property. Mr Hickford, then a councillor on the committee and deputy leader of the council, declared an interest as the tenant. 

In January 2019 the audit and accounts committee received a request to review the process by which the tenancy was awarded and subsequent decisions related to it. 

The matter was then investigated by Cambridgeshire Constabulary, which concluded with the police saying they would take no further action. 

The council’s chief internal auditor then fell ill and was unable to complete the Manor Farm audit, prompting the council’s chief executive to bring in an independent auditor in December 2020. 

The council has previously said: “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. 

“Cllr Hickford declared his tenancy of the farm on the council’s public website as soon as it was awarded and has taken part in no council discussions or decisions about the tenancy which might benefit him financially”. 

In a strongly worded opinion article in our newspapers this week we posed the following questions:  

1: Who knew that former councillor Roger Hickford was applying for a farm tenancy in the early part of 2017.  

2: Why did he not think it inappropriate?  

3: Who among his Tory colleagues also knew? And why did they not caution him against such foolishness?  

4: Why did not chief executive Gillian Beasley tell council leader Steve Count it may not be seem to be within the guiding principles of public life?  

5: Why did her deputy, Chris Malyon, also not warn against the likely public perception? Why did he think it a “good investment” for the council to offer £183,000 to modernise the house and extend the lease?  

6: Why did Cllr Count not intervene earlier? He must surely have been aware last year that the audit work wasn’t looking good for his deputy?  

7: This Land Ltd refused to accept Cllr Hickford as a non-executive director until Cllr Hickford was cleared. So why did Cllr Count then appoint his deputy as chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership?