Tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton – a statement from Cambridgeshire County Council
- The tenancy of Manor Farm was advertised publically as the smallest of ten vacant County Estates Farm holdings in early 2017. 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
- It is open to any tenant to make application for an investment to further develop county farms property. This application was unanimously supported by members of the council’s Commercial and Investment committee who agreed that the investment was appropriate, and offered a good return (7%) for the council, which encourages such investments to improve the estate overall.
- The council never ‘loans’ money to individuals – this is a commercial investment in a County Council owned asset.
Cambridgeshire County Council is responsible for the largest County Farms Estate in the UK covering 33,400 acres, with 200 tenants. In 2017/18 it made £4.089m in profit, used to support the council’s essential frontline services.
It is imperative therefore that the County Farms Estate is well managed, and that when tenancies become vacant tenants are selected who can continue the council’s policy of improvement and diversification and can demonstrate that their business can fund the market rental for that asset.
Tenancies become available each year. In 2017 10 became vacant and were advertised publically; eight went to new tenants and two to existing tenants increasing their holdings. Applicants with new business ideas are always welcome to apply
The tenancy of Manor Farm, Girton was advertised in the normal way between January and Feb 2017. The Farm does not lend itself to traditional farming given the relative small size of the site and access issues. However the Council were open to both traditional farming and alternative use applications. As it was the Council received no traditional farming applications which were considered viable for the site, but two applicants were interviewed.
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. The process adopted for awarding this tenancy was exactly the same for every other tenancy that becomes available. This is an officer process – no Members are involved in the selection - but is operated within a framework agreed by Members. There are a number of stages to ensure that the tenancy is awarded to an appropriate applicant.
There has been no secrecy surrounding the tenancy, as Cllr Hickford recorded it immediately it was awarded on his Register of Members’ Disclosable Pecuniary Interest Form dated 19 May 2017. This has been publically available on the council’s website ever since along with all other Cambridgeshire County Councillor’s financial interests, even though the tenancy didn’t begin until 20th December 2017.
The Assets and Investments Committee held its last meeting with Cllr Hickford as Chairman on March 31 2017. The committee was revised and reformed as the Commercial and Investment committee following the May 2017 elections under the chairmanship of Cllr Josh Schumann. Cllr Hickford has never been a member of this committee.
Cllr Hickford’s application for further investment in the tenancy was discussed by the C&I committee in December 2018. As Cllr Hickford is not a member of this committee he didn’t attend the meeting. The names of tenants of county farm properties are not publicised, as the debate is about whether the investment is a sensible one for the property and would bring a good return for the council on its investment. On this occasion the Committee agreed unanimously that it would, and furthermore that this tenancy be extended for a few years past the usual end date –when is when the existing tenant reaches 65 – to cover the payback period of the investment.
As the investment pot for county farms had been exceeded for the current year (a note in the October C&I minutes says that it had been reduced because of lack of previous applications – and is probably now too small) the proposal needed approval by the council’s General Purposes Committee on December 18th. As Cllr Hickford is a member of this committee, he left the room while the discussion took place and the decision was made.
The outcomes focussed review (OFR) of the county farms estate was established to look at options for the management of the wider estate rather than looking at any specific issues to do with or which could benefit individual tenancies. Each of the OFRs reported in to a lead Member, in the first two set up meeting these were to Cllr Hickford, but as the political lead he took no part in the actual review process- undertaken by officers. Subsequent meetings reported in to Cllr Josh Schumann as committee chair. As part of the OFR process, a cross party Member Workshop provided significant clarity and steer to officers on what their expectations of the outcome should bring.
Cllr Hickford was appointed County Farms champion in October 2017. The remit of this role is to provide support and challenge on an issue – and having personal knowledge of and interest in the subject was of specific benefit to feed into the OFR. The council has a number of other Member ‘champions’ drawn from all parties including a community safety champion who has personal experience of domestic violence, and a cycling champion who is a cyclist. No member champion has specific decision making responsibility.
It is entirely inaccurate to categorise a farm property which forms part of a County Farm Estate tenancy as a ‘council house’ – the differences are as follows.
- Social housing - a responsibility of district or City councils – is allocated on a points based system linked to an applicant’s level of vulnerability or need – it also carries with it ‘right to buy’ options. Such housing is let at a below market rates therefore there is an inherent financial benefit
- Farm properties which form part of a tenancy agreement remain the property and the asset of the county council and any improvements made to them increase the overall value of the asset for the county generally. There is no ‘right to buy’ or any needs based assessment of residents, and rents are set at full market value and so there is no inherent financial benefit.