Councillors recommend six-figure loan to extend home not realising it is owned by deputy leader

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha

There are calls for better transparency and scrutiny after claims councillors recommended a loan to extend a council property not realising it is the home of the authority’s deputy leader.

On Tuesday, Cambridgeshire County Council’s General Purposes Committee (GPC) approved additional prudential borrowing of £183,000 in 2018/19 for a house extension scheme for the Manor Farm, Girton, which is currently listed as an address for the council’s deputy leader, Roger Hickford.

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, Lib Dem group leader, said councillors were only told about Cllr Hickford’s connection to the property on Wednesday, despite the loan having already gone before councillors on the council’s Commercial and Investment (C&I) Committee.

She said the GPC received a recommendation to approve the loan from the C&I, members of which, she said, had been unaware that the council-owned property the loan is for is the home of Cllr Hickford.

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 C&I committee having had “no idea” of Cllr Hickford’s connection with the property.

Cllr Nethsingha said it is likely more questions would have been asked if Cllr Hickford’s connection to the property had been made known to the C&I committee.

She said councillors should have been informed earlier, and learning about the connection so late had put them in an “awkward position” at the GPC.

“My concern is there is a really shocking lack of transparency about it,” added Cllr Nethsingha. “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.”

Cllr Nethsingha said she would be calling for the decision to be reviewed and said more questions should have been asked at the time.

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.

A Cambridgeshire County Council spokeswoman confirmed Cllr Hickford had acted properly, and said it was not usual to disclose tenants’ names at the C&I 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 C&I 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.”

The spokeswoman pointed out that all member’s interests can be seen at any time on the council’s website.

She added: “The project is to extend the house at Manor Farm. The tenant has agreed to pay an annual seven per cent improvement charge on the total cost and as a result the council’s asset will increase in value as well as generate a revenue return.”

Josh Thomas, Local Democracy Reporting Service