Cambridgeshire County Council promises to respond to multiple questions over how Tory deputy leader became a tenant farmer - and member champion for 200 council owned farms

PUBLISHED: 17:30 07 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:32 08 January 2019

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

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Over 30 questions have been put to Cambridgeshire County Council as part of our investigation into how the deputy leader of the council Roger Hickford acquired the tenancy of a county council farm.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

Cllr Hickford, a former chairman of the assets committee that oversees the council’s 200 farms estate, was ironically appointed as ‘member champion’ by his leader Steve Count last May. Part of the Tory councillor’s role was to explore the future strategy for the 34,000 acres owned by Cambridgeshire County Council.

These are the latest questions put to the council today as part of our investigation:

1: Can you explain why the council appointed Cllr Hickford as ‘member champion’ in the summer of 2018 – surely this would have been a conflict of interest given the fact he had been a tenant for over a year by this date?

2: Was the terms of the loan agreed by the county council general purposes committee in December dependent upon change of use? We note an application for change of use is yet to be determined by South Cambs Council.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. He spoke at a tenants meeting in Peterborough in 2017Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. He spoke at a tenants meeting in Peterborough in 2017

3: Did the business plan put forward by Cllr Hickford set out his plans for a dog grooming/canine training centre? If so why wasn’t planning permission for change of use not put forward earlier?

4: Given the fact 18 months have elapsed since he acquired the tenancy was a delay of around two years prior to the farm being self sustainable part of that business plan?

5: Who sat on the interview panel that offered Cllr Hickford the tenancy? Were any other county councillors on that panel?

6: Can you confirm there were eight other applicants for the tenancy of Manor Farm? Did any of those applicants propose change of use?

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

7: According to Cllr Hickford’s declared addresses in recent years he has lived in a Suffolk farm house and a substantial house in Shelford. Was the council satisfied that he qualified for the policy of the county council estates which is to encourage new and young entrants into farming?

8: How did the council justify a major extension to Manor Farm given that the length of tenancy and creation of a large country home – and a barn conversion to a business – would make it impossible ever again to be considered as part of a starter unit for new entrants to farming?

Here’s our report from earlier.

By comparison with the other 200 tenants of Cambridgeshire County Council’s 34,000 acre rural estate, Manor Farm at Girton is of modest scale and proportion at just under nine acres.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

But it provided its previous incumbents with a living for five decades and is about to enter a new phase under the stewardship of Roger Hickford.

A series of planning applications to South Cambridgeshire District Council last year paved the way for a sizeable extension to the £400,000 farmhouse and a barn conversion to provide a luxury spa for dogs that will create the income that nine acres of rural Cambridgeshire is unlikely to offer. 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. Mr Hickford is in his mid to late 50s and is benefitting from ‘ongoing fiscal restraints on the council’ that has encouraged diversification both in what activities are carried out on and the age range of those picking up a tenancy.

What sets Mr Hickford apart from other council farm tenants, however, is his role as a Cambridgeshire county councillor.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

Not only that but he is also deputy leader of the council and has been part of a working party set up by the council to specifically examine the future opportunities of the council’s farms’ estates.

In 2017 Cllr Hickford acquired the tenancy of Manor Farm but it was only days before Christmas 2018 that many of his council colleagues realised this after he declared an interest during a meeting of the general purposes committee and left the room.

It turned out that the item from which he properly and constitutionally was obliged to absent himself was a recommendation from the commercial and investments committee (previously the assets committee of which he chaired for a year until mid 2017) to provide him with a loan of £183,000 to finance the extension of Manor Farm – an application that the county council had itself supported on Cllr Hickford’s behalf to the planning authority at South Cambs District Council.

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, Lib Dem leader at Cambridgeshire County Council, said councillors were only told about Cllr Hickford’s connection to the property in December despite the loan having already gone before the council’s commercial and investment committee.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of �183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of �183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

There is no suggestion Cllr Hickford has done anything wrong or acted improperly, but Cllr Nethsingha has hit out at council transparency, saying other Lib Dem councillors had previously approved the loan at the commercial and investment committee having had “no idea” of Cllr Hickford’s connection with the property.

“My concern is there is a really shocking lack of transparency about it,” said Cllr Nethsingha who has since been to speak to county council officials about the whole issue of its county farms estate.

“It seems no one apart from a small circle of people knew about it. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with the loan itself, but the transparency of the process stinks.” she said.

Cllr Hickford said he had been completely honest and upfront about his connection with Manor Farm, and said all his interests had been listed for all to see.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

A Cambridgeshire County Council spokeswoman confirmed Cllr Hickford had acted properly, and said it was not usual to disclose tenants’ names at the commercial and investment committee.

The spokeswoman said: “Tenants’ names are never given as part of the discussions at commercial and investment committee as the committee is only considering the commercial benefits of the scheme and return for the council and considers proposals objectively.

“Cllr Hickford is not a member of the commercial and investment committee so his tenancy was not declared at this time; he is a member of the general purposes committee so very properly declared his interest and left the meeting for the item thereby taking no part in the discussion or the vote.”

To try and understand more of the background the county council has promised responses to a number of questions I have asked: these are expected next week.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

They include my request for a copy of the county council advertisement for the tenancy of Manor Farm, detailing when it was advertised, who was responsible for marketing it, and copies of the specifications for ingoing tenants.

I have also asked for confirmation that Cllr Hickford was successful in his tenancy application against eight other candidates – as I have been told - and the selection criteria adopted.

It has emerged that during the first quarter of 2017 Cllr Hickford attended a tenant farmers’ meeting in Peterborough in his capacity as chairman of the assets committee.

According to a council newsletter: “The meetings were chaired by Councillor Roger Hickford, chair of the council’s assets and investments committee, who provided a member’s view alongside the general estate update from Hugo Mallaby (asset manager for the county council estates).

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

“This was followed by a lively question and answer session at each venue, particularly regarding the strategic review.

“The meetings are important, and we look forward to seeing lots of you at next year’s meetings. Please do let us know if there are any topics that you would like to see covered.”

The council has been asked whether during those meetings with other tenants Cllr Hickford announced he was about to become a tenant or had applied to become a tenant.

According to the most recently published information “the current policies encourage new farming entrants onto the estate, with 80 new businesses formed in the last 15 years; new tenants for this period had an average age of 30 when they first started.

Cllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANTCllr Roger Hickford, deputy leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, who is now a tenant farmer of the council having been offered the tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton. The council has agreed a loan of £183,000 to extend the farm house. He wants to run a canine training centre from there. Picture: ARCHANT

“The estate’s rent roll has increased from £2.755 million to £4.024 million since the scrutiny review of 2011 whilst the surplus has increased by 65 per cent to £3.173million in the same period”. The switch to non farming enterprises appear to have got under way since that document was published three years ago.

According to publicly available information Cllr Hickford has switched his business address three times in three years, Manor Farm appearing on January 1, 2018.

In October 2015 Cllr Hickford gave his address as Norley Moat Farmhouse at Little Bradley in Suffolk before switching to High Street, Little Shelford in 2016.

It is evident from the public minutes of the assets committee that Cllr Hickford was chairman when the farms estate of the county council was referred to and discussed. Did Cllr Hickford declare his interest as a prospective tenant farmer on those occasions – or was this covered, technically, on his register of interests once had moved into Manor Farm?

In 2017 Cllr Hickford acquired the tenancy of Manor Farm but it was only days before Christmas 2018 that many of his council colleagues realised this after he declared an interest during a meeting of the general purposes committee and left the room.

Here’s a brief time line of recent events;

May 27 2016: Cllr Hickford appointed chair of the assets committee

Jan/Feb 2017: The committee holds two meetings of the strategic review working group. Cllr Hickford attends tenancy meeting to discuss matters including strategic review with tenants.

April 2017: Manor Farm, Girton, advertised in council magazine as being available to r-ent

April/May 2017: Cllr Hickford awarded five year tenancy on Manor Farm, Girton.

May 2017: Cllr Hickford records Manor Farm on his register of interests at county council

September 2017: Newly constituted commercial and investment committee appoints Cllr Hickford as one of two last minute members on county farms estate working group, or as they put it to look at “outcome focussed reviews” on county farms.”

The minutes of the commercial and investment committee of October 20, 2017 record that Councillor Hickford was appointed to the ‘outcome focused review’ of the county farm estate. It is not clear that the committee was informed or knew that by this stage Cllr Hickford was himself a tenant farmer of the county council

Specifically in relation to the money agreed by the general purposes committee to the proposed works to be undertaken at Manor Farm, Girton, by Cllr Hickford, I have asked the county council about the following:

What work is the £183,000 designed to cover?

Is there more investment down the line on the house and/or barn conversion?

Would it have been more than £183k if the larger, earlier house extension had been accepted?

Does any of the £183k cover the barn extension?

What are the details of CCC’s prudential borrowing? How much borrowed, from whom, for how long, interest rate, fixed or variable?

What is the amount Cllr Hickford will repay? When do payments start?

Does repayment cost to Cllr Hickford cover interest paid by CCC to lender?

Is Cllr Hickford paying back at a higher – more commercial rate? Would Cllr Hickford be able to secure a business loan over 14/15 years (given his age) on the open market? What security/collateral is Cllr Hickford offering CCC against non-payment?

Are there plans for Cllr Hickford to buy the house and/or barn at any stage?

Has CCC played any part in lending to Cllr Hickford in respect of the barn conversion? If so, please provide details.

What is the total financial benefit in kind to Cllr Hickford from non-commercial loan(s) from CCC or related entities to Cllr Hickford that he would not get on the open market?

In his biography on the South Cambridgeshire Conservative Association website, Cllr Hickford describes his early career in the financial markets of the City of London

But over two decades ago he says he left to develop his own financial services and in 2006 set up an independent financial advisory company, which he stills own.

In 2013 he won election to the county council at Linton (he also served as a district councillor) but in 2017 switched to the Sawston and Shelford ward.

Cllr Hickford describes himself as a “very keen ‘dog’ person” and with his wife Karen have two German shepherds and are registered breeders with the Kennel Club.

“I am very fortunate that my hours working as an independent financial adviser are flexible,” he told voters prior to the last election.

“The county council work load can take up three to four days a week on average, but because of my ability to work when I want, it means I can take on extra responsibilities at the county council, and that has helped me take on and fulfil the deputy leader’s role”.

His current roles at the council include the deputy leadership, chairman of the pension fund committee, vice chairman of the general purposes committee, and membership of two other committees.

From May 2016 to May 2017 he chaired the assets and investment committee and for three years to 2017 was chairman of the Greater Cambridge City Deal Joint Assembly and chairman of the county highways and community infrastructure committee for two years from 2014.

The application by Cllr Hickford to use Manor Farm as a day care centre for dogs – with hydro therapy pool and space for training security dogs – is still to face another planning hurdle.

South Cambs Council is considering an application submitted in November last year for change of use from agriculture to a canine centre and training facility.

Documents on the council website show that as part of the consultation process one neighbour has protested strongly against the change of use.

He claims that Manor Farm Road “is frequently blocked and conditions are chaotic”, due in part to those attending Gretton School.

The neighbour also fears increased noise and alleges that the boundaries of Manor Farm have not been properly stated meaning the proposed car park for the new dog training centre would need to be altered.

Highways and the Environment Agency have also offered comment – mainly of a supportive nature – but South Cambs council’s own environmental health officer Russell Watkins is not convinced.

“I note there are a number of residential dwellings and a school relatively close to the proposed development site and am therefore mindful of the potentially adverse impact on those premises as a result of noise from the dogs,” he said.

Mr Watkins said he had highlighted previously that there is currently no acoustic fence and from a subsequent conversation recognised that the inclusion of one does not form part of the application.

“Combined with my comments concerning potentially noise sensitive receptors in relatively close proximity to the proposed development, I wish to object to the application from an environmental health standpoint,” he said.

The maps officer of the county council has also noted that a public footpath forms part of the access to Manor Farm and has asked for assurances that this will be protected.

FOOTNOTE:

Cambridgeshire’s farms estate comprises 13,400ha and has 197 farm tenants. In England and Wales there are over 3,100 tenants on 111,000ha of local authority land. The Cambridgeshire estate is the largest.

The estate provides significant financial returns for the council, generating £5 million in rent each year and more than £51 million has been raised through the sale of surplus property since 1993. The money raised is used to pay for council services and to keep council tax low.

“The estate is important as the first rung on the ladder for new entrants to farming and 100 new entrants have joined the estate since 2000,” says a council spokesman,

“As well as financial benefits the estate has been used to open public access to the countryside with miles of new bridleways and footpaths, to improve the landscape with new woods and hedges and to protect biodiversity and archaeology.”

The council also says it farms estate supports many jobs in rural Cambridgeshire.

It, also, says the council “provides opportunities for young people to start farming”.

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