Aerial view of farmland with arable fields, hedgerows and woodland, North Norfolk© FLPA / Roger Tidman/REX/Shutterstock

Auditors have criticised the running of Norfolk County Council’s county farms operation, highlighting problems with the selection procedures for new farm lettings.

The report, published on 18 April, said auditors had not found any potential criminal matters or any evidence of member misconduct.

However, there were “key issues that need to be addressed” to give greater transparency to decision-making and to eradicate weaknesses in the administration of the council’s 16,000-acre farm estate.

See also: Herefordshire Council investigated for farm sell-off

The damning report pointed to actions which auditors said left council members and officers open to “accusations of impropriety or conflict of interest over the procedure used for allocating tenants.”

Questions were raised about the transparency of selection procedures for tenancies after several complaints to the council.

Auditors found the interview selection panel used its discretion to approve some direct lettings, without interview, to some existing county farm in late 2015. However, other farms and land were let through interviews.

“The direct lettings were based on the highest rent offered. Applicants were not aware of that when they applied for the farms and that may have contributed to the perception that the process was unfair or that tenants had been favoured.”

The report also said the County Farms Advisory Board was not operating as intended, with members acting outside of the board’s scope.

Auditors found members had played a direct role in the selection of tenants, although the board’s role is supposed to be setting the policy direction for the farm estate.

They also identified issues with the selection and interviewing of prospective tenants, with inconsistencies in the criteria used for shortlisting people and gaps in the information recorded.

“The reporting of decisions and activity has not been sufficiently clear to counter a perception by some tenants and the wider public that decisions may be unfair or subject to favouritism,” the report concluded.

Steps to ensure transparency

In response, Simon George, executive director for finance at Norfolk County Council, said the farms estate was a very important asset and the report made it clear that steps on its governance needed to be taken to ensure it was managed as clearly and transparent as possible.

“These new arrangements will achieve improved business management of the estate. It will also ensure a number of areas where there has been a lack of clarity over responsibilities – for the letting of farms, for example – are clear to all; tenant farmers, officers and elected members alike. Having a clearer system of checks and balances in place can only be beneficial.

“Officers have in recent months looked at a number of complaints about the management of the estate covering a range of areas such as customer service and the transparency of farm letting procedures.

“While no member misconduct issues or criminal matters were found, disciplinary action is being taken involving one member of staff who is currently suspended pending an investigation.”    

Norfolk County Council currently has 145 farm tenants.