Release farmgate report ASAP urges Tory councillor

Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem) who has found surprise allies with Conservative councillor Chris Boden (right)

Newly elected county council leader Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem) who has found surprise allies with Conservative councillor Chris Boden (right) backing calls for publication of farmgate report. - Credit: Archant/Terry Harris

Tory county councillors have done a U turn to call for immediate publication of the farmgate report into the farm tenancy awarded to former councillor Roger Hickford.  

Cllr Chris Boden, the Conservative nominee on the county council audit committee, believes publication is vital.  

He said his group leader – and former council leader – Steve Count had given him a free hand on decision making over the report. 

"I have a long record of seeking to maximise public disclosure of all local authority matters subject only to the strict limitations laid down in the Local Government Act 1972,” he said. 

“I have written to the new chair of the committee, Cllr Graham Wilson, calling on him to ensure that publication of the Mazars report takes place without delay, unexpurgated if possible.” 

He added if that if “absolutely necessary” publication would be “subject to minimal redaction if that is legally required”.   

Cllr Boden called for the report to be included on the agenda of the next audit committee. 

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The report details allegations the Mr Hickford 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 that the disgraced councillor bullied staff, created serious mental stress for harassed officers, and repeatedly broke the council’s code of conduct.   

The allegations were confirmed by a whistle-blower within Cambridgeshire County Council who lifted the lid on multiple allegations against Hickford contained in the 480-page audit committee report into his behaviour and actions.   

The inquiry began at the beginning of 2019 following the disclosure that Hickford was the new tenant of Manor Farm, Girton.   

An earlier vote against publication of the report did not fall down party lines. 

Four Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats voted not to publish, and one Liberal Democrat, the then chair of the audit and accounts committee Mike Shellens, voting for publication.  

At the time councillors said they received legal advice against publication. 

Cllr Wilson says the Lib Dems were agreed that “the council must act openly and transparently in order to maintain the confidence of the public.  

“We will therefore work with council officers to publish the long awaited ‘farmgate’ report to the greatest possible extent, and as soon as possible.”  

Conservative Alan Sharp, who is new to the council and will take up a position on the committee, said “to be transparent we need to release as much as we can of it”.  

Of the three Conservatives on the committee, Cllr Mac McGuire is the only one who remains from March.  

He also voted against publication, but now says he supports the call made by Cllr Boden to reconsider, subject to receiving further legal advice from the council, and to redactions to “protect the innocent”.  

Cllr Count said: “I think the legal advice will have matured in the time.  

“People will have had the opportunity to look much more carefully at what can and cannot be published”. 

He added that “redaction removes my concerns then my view might very well change, but at that time [March] that was not being proposed to us”. 

 He said his “conscience is clear” as to his previous vote, adding “it was made based on the best advice”.  

He said “farmgate in principle should not be kept confidential.  

“There are issues in farmgate, lessons to be learned from farmgate that need to be public”, adding “our concern was the safeguarding, and we didn’t have that assurance at that time”.  

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha, said: “Having pursued this story for years now I am also very keen to get the farmgate report into the public domain.  

“I am working on what we can get out as soon as possible, but also on the need to get full disclosure even if that takes a little longer.  

 “The public deserve to hear the full farmgate story.” 

Many believe delayed publication of the farmgate report cost the Conservatives votes in the May election. 

Lib Dems, Labour and independents won enough extra seats to take control.