Bullying councillor left staff in tears and affected mental health of others
- Credit: Terry Harris
His eight years as one of Cambridgeshire’s most senior politicians ended, prematurely, a year ago but his toxic, bullying and self-serving nature can only now be revealed.
An investigation ordered by the constitution and ethics committee into breaches of the code of conduct by Roger Hickford, has issued its damning verdict.
And its conclusions support allegations detailed over the past three years following an exhaustive probe by this newspaper.
Hickford was a member of Cambridgeshire County Council between May 2, 2013 and February 26, 2021.
Publicly he towered over the political stage, accumulating major positions in health, highways, assets and investment and in recent years as chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership.
And for five years prior to his departure, served as deputy to the then Conservative county council leader Steve Count.
But only now, with publication of the constitution and ethics committee findings, can the extent of his abuse of power be revealed.
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In a report compiled by a five-strong legal team headed by experienced lawyer Jonathan Gooden, a no-holds barred indictment of his behaviour and conduct is set out.
It spells out in graphic detail behaviours that will ripple through the corridors of powers for years to come.
“At 177 pages this is one of the longer reports we have produced in 18 years working with local authorities,” explained Mr Goolden.
He was introducing the report to the committee on February 24.
Ostensibly the report deals with the former councillor’s acquisition of a county farms estate tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton near Cambridge.
And it produces compelling evidence of how Hickford used his position as a councillor to gain preferential treatment.
It details how officers repeatedly felt intimidated by his attitude towards them, how some were bullied, and how concerns were well known but not dealt with by senior officers.
And it outlines previous episodes of his bullying stance when chair of the county council pensions committee.
Of many grave charges highlighted, one officer recounted an incident when Hickford was extremely aggressive and would not allow him to answer his ‘questions’.
“He had felt bullied and that he was trying to humiliate him in front of the estate tenants in an attempt to make his position untenable,” says the report.
Deputy chief executive Chris Malyon knew of the incident.
The report says the officer was “told to be very careful about what he said and that it was a very serious allegation.
“He had felt pressured to say no more.”
Mr Malyon “made it very clear with whom his sympathies lay.
And he was “shut down when he raised points about Mr Hickford”.
The report says the officer’s mental health was severely impacted, to the extent that he remained on anti-depressants.
“And he felt it prudent to store shotguns, rather than have them at home in a suitable cabinet," says the report.
“He had not felt secure enough to have the weapons at home for 12 months. That cost approximately £900.”
Bullying claims were not taken seriously.
He felt “very strongly that that was facilitated by the inaction of the deputy chief executive”.
He believed him to be wholly complicit as he was in a position to raise those concerns with the chief executive and leader of the council.
“As far as he was aware, he had done neither. He felt he had tried to whistle blow about Mr Hickford’s behaviour but that it was not taken at all seriously.
“The deputy chief executive showed no support whatsoever”.
The officer told investigators of emails with Mr Hickford where the tone was “aggressive and derogatory throughout”.
He also spoke of a female colleague who was “very distressed” after an encounter with Hickford.
The officer said he did his best to reassure her that she had done nothing wrong.
She then wrote a note about the meeting which she forwarded to him.
He had forwarded it to Mr Malyon and also spoke to Hickford who “was abusive in tone”.
The officer said Hickford made it clear that the officer’s job was at risk if he did not do exactly what the deputy leader wanted.
The officer said he emailed Mr Malyon suggesting he should get Hickford to apologise but received no response.
The report sets out how officers felt challenged by having both Hickford as a tenant of the farms estate and deputy council leader.
And at the same time Hickford was leading a review into the county farms estate.
Repeatedly the conflict of interest was raised,
But the report says the council’s monitoring officer had advised1 there was no conflict.
Hickford chaired the review team in an advisory capacity and it was not a decision-making body, was the response.
The former chief internal auditor Duncan Wilkinson also gave evidence to the investigators.
He offered a detailed account of his own work – which ended when he stepped away near its ends.
“I did not feel bullied because the audit process(es) was being challenged,” he told investigators.
“Sadly, that is expected in such cases.
“I felt bullied because there was an undercurrent of personalising my conduct rather than any acknowledgement that I was performing my duties, required by and agreed with the council.
“I found myself fearful of exercising my professional judgment on these matters without obtaining multiple stakeholder agreements as it always felt like any decision would be criticised.”
Mr Wilkinson said: “Ultimately, in the autumn of 2020, I sought support from my line manager.
“I also consulted my GP who prescribed medication to help me tackle the stress and anxiety the situation caused.”
He added: “That resulted in formal advice that I needed to distance myself from the council for the sake of my personal wellbeing.”
It was then he advised the chief executive Gillian Beasley that external professionals should complete the work.
Mazars were appointed to finalise the audit work and their conclusions “were largely the same, if not stronger in their conclusions regarding Mr Hickford,” he said.
It showed that “the challenges to myself and internal audit were unfounded and designed to intimidate”.
Evidence was also heard from a female councillor who said some of the allegations from the audit report about Hickford were no surprise.
"Although the extent of it was,” she said.
The councillor referred to an incident when she had witnessed Hickford’s behaviour in the summer of 2020 towards the previous director of public health.
Following the meeting she had sent the director of public health an email asking if she was okay and asked whether she wanted her to do anything about the way she had been treated.
“Subsequent to the elections in May 2021 the councillor was approached by two members of staff, both of whom had since left the council due to the way they were treated by Roger Hickford and another member,” says the report.
“One member of staff mentioned a meeting at which he had been screamed and yelled at by Roger Hickford and had been threatened with the destruction of his career.
“That member of staff went off sick for several months, returning briefly before leaving the council as he felt unable to work there any longer”.
The councillor didn’t think he had had another job to go to “and believed that a relatively young senior manager leaving the council with no job to go to was a shocking position to be in.
“His description of the way he had been treated by Roger Hickford and another member was pretty horrific”.
The councillor said over the years, she had personally found Roger Hickford very difficult to work with.
“The way she and the leader of the Labour group were treated was, at times, pretty awful,” says the report.
“It was an aggressive culture, not just against officers, but also against other members”.
The councillor, who can clearly be identified as Lucy Nethsingha, now leader, told investigators how she had spotted the potential conflict of interest.
At the December 2018 G&P committee she became aware that Hickford was taking on a farm tenancy.
She felt it “deeply inappropriate and was a conflict of interest” that Hickford was also farms champions.
Cllr Nethsingha said she felt there were “quite serious misjudgements” by officers as well as members in not making things clearer.
Mr Gooden said it was apparent that Mr Hickford was frustrated with the county farm team.
“You don’t have to a councillor to become frustrated in dealing with officers but could any other tenant have been able to secure such attention from the council” he asked.
Mr Gooden said there was a relatively straightforward way of thinking about it.
“Was Hickford doing something only a councillor could do, in obtaining exceptional treatment as a farm tenant pulling strings at every level?” he asked.
The report concluded that Hickford did misuse his position as a councillor to gain concessions for Manor Farm that any other tenant would probably not have got.
Mr Gooden also spoke about bullying and disrespect, quoting as an example Hickford’s comments at a site meeting at Manor Farm and at a tenants’ meeting.
He said Hickford’s conduct “went over the line; he was hostile in emails, intimidating in meetings and made direct and indirect threats to officers concerned”.
And Hickford attempted to compromise the impartiality of officers, said Mr Gooden.
He said Hickford “used his position to receive concessions that the council would not otherwise have done”.
Investigators concluded that Roger Hickford breached the code of conduct:
He failed to treat officers and others acting on behalf of the council with respect
He used a bullying manner in order for the council to pay for works that would otherwise be the responsibility of the tenant.
He also used a bullying manner in order to set the terms of the lease for Manor Farm
He compromised officers and others’ impartiality in his dealings with regard to Manor Farm
His conduct towards officers and others and his conflict of interest would have reduced the public’s confidence in him.
He used his position as deputy leader to receive concessions that the council would not otherwise have agreed to
He failed to register a disclosable pecuniary interest (the tenancy of manor Farm) within 28 days and he failed to declare a non-statutory disclosable interest in meetings with regard to county farms matters.
In February last year then council leader Steve Count accepted Hickford’s resignation.
"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,” he said.
On February 26, 2022, Cllr Count, now opposition leader, says the report’s conclusions “that officers were bullied, goes to the heart of why we need such investigations”.
He said the report would offer confidence that the council “can, and will, expose inappropriate breaches of councillor conduct, and take steps to stop them happening again”.
Cllr Count said he offered “a sincere personal apology”.
It was on behalf of “the county council that I led at that time and for those that suffered as a result of his actions.
“And for what must now be recognised as failures to sufficiently protect officers at those points in time.”
Cllr Nethsingha, said: “I am determined that we will root out disrespectful or bullying behaviour, whoever is responsible.
“I will be asking our new chief executive to undertake a wider review of member - officer behaviour, and our support for council officers at all levels across the council.”
Cllr Nethsingha said the recommendations also include contacting other councils in Cambridgeshire to improve standards of behaviour in public life.
Cllr Sebastian Kindersley, chair of the constitution and ethics committee, said: “Residents have a right to expect those who stand for election to public office do so out of a desire to serve others, not to serve themselves.
“This investigation found Mr Hickford’s behaviour fell far below the standards expected for those in public life.”
Chief executive Stephen Moir, said: “It is a matter of deep regret that anyone has had to experience the type of behaviours outlined in this report.
“As chief executive I want to offer an apology both personally and on behalf of the organisation to colleagues past and present that may have been affected.”
He added: “The people who work for the council have the right to feel safe and supported.”
And he promised to ensure concerns about the conduct of staff or councillors will be heard.
"However, it is not enough to know that concerns will be heard, it is just as important that any issues are then properly dealt with,” he said.
“It is a priority for me to ensure this is clearly understood by everyone the council employs.”
Cllr Nick Gay, vice-chair of the audit and accounts committee (Labour) said: “Cllr Count presided over a culture of confrontation and aggression that licenced Hickford to bully and intimidate council staff.
“In these circumstances, the Labour group calls on Count to consider his position and resign as leader of the opposition forthwith.’
Cllr Alex Bulat, vice-chair of the constitution and ethics committee (Labour), said: “Partygate after partygate, the Tories have further eroded trust in politics.
“Locally, it’s farmgate. As a new councillor to this county, I was horrified to read about what Hickford did under the previous administration.
“Hickford’s behaviour significantly affected officers and councillors.”
Hickford’s advisers were denied an extension to reflect on the report findings, having only been given a copy on February 3.
The council declined, explaining that he had first been offered an opportunity to respond to allegations last July.
"Mr Hickford was given adequate opportunity to participate in the investigation process but declined to do so,” said Mr Gooden.
"The council cannot impose sanctions on Mr Hickford as an outcome of the process; there appear to be no extenuating circumstances such as illness or holiday which could necessitate a delay”.
He added: “There is a public interest in the matter being considered by the council without undue delay.”
Mr Hickford has always maintained he was “upfront and transparent” about his role as a councillor when applying for the tenancy.
He said his business plans “suffered severe delays due to inexperience and incompetent project management by those within the county farms team who were engaged with the project”.
And he added: “I have worked very hard at this project for a number of years and have invested both significant amounts of my time and my money in improving the property.
“I have been forced to abandon the project and leave the property due to a series of broken promises by the council”.
Mr Gooden added: “Mr Hickford was offered code of conduct training.
“However, there is no record of him having attended any such training.”