Natural England chair ‘blocks public paths on own land’

Campaigners identify problems with public paths on the Wiltshire farm of Andrew Sells, new chair of the government body tasked with promoting countryside access

The major Conservative party donor chosen to chair Natural England, which has a duty to promote access to countryside, has public paths on his Wiltshire farm that are blocked by fences, lack signposts and waymarkers and run through his tennis court, the Guardian has learned.

Andrew Sells, an investment banker and venture capitalist who describes his donations as “serious money”, was approved on Friday to lead the nation’s statutory adviser to government on the natural environment.

On Wednesday, Sells told MPs scrutinising his appointment: “I am an accountant and have spent years in finance, but as a boy I worked on a farm in East Anglia.” He added: “I am passionate about the countryside.”

Sells lives on a small farm in north Wiltshire but Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society who has visited the farm, said there were problems with the public paths on the farm.

“One public footpath is blocked by two fences and trees, and another, which goes along his drive and across a tennis court, has no waymarking and looks private, so that walkers are discouraged from using it. Clearly this is not good enough,” she told the Guardian.

“Since Natural England has a statutory purpose of ‘promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation’, one would expect the access provision on land belonging to the chairman to be exemplary. Regrettably this is not so.”

Sells, who has owned the farm since 1991, said: “I fully support the rights of ramblers and walkers and all measures to promote access to and enjoyment of the countryside. Local walkers have historically used a permissive path on my land, as they prefer to use a more direct route and avoid passing very close to the house.”

He said waymarks on rights of way were the responsibility of the local authorities, but added: “I would be very happy to discuss any issues to see if there is any further help I can give.”

In 2008, the footpath secretary of the Ramblers group highlighted footpath obstructions, lack of signposts, a broken stile and an apparent unofficial diversion on the farm.

Ashbrook said: “The permissive path is irrelevant: it is not a highway in law and is not in any case waymarked, so walkers won’t be aware that they can use it. It is true the highway authority is responsible for waymarking, but one would expect a landowner ‘who supports the rights of ramblers and walkers’ to have ensured all the paths on his land were well waymarked.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said Sells was appointed “following a rigorous selection process chaired by an independent assessor”. During the session with MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs select (Efra) committee, Sells said he had given about £140,000 to the Conservative party over the last five years, which he said was “serious money but does not put me in the Lord Ashcroft league”. He said he would not give further donations to any political party and was stepping down as a trustee of the right-of-centre thinktank Policy Exchange.

The committee chair, Anne McIntosh, asked Sells: “[Chairing Natural England] is quite different to the work you have done before, which I could call high finance. What makes you think you are suitable for the post?”

Sells replied: “A year ago I took a job part-time at the Department of Work and Pensions that was very different to anything I had done before. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed working in a topic I knew nothing about at that stage.”

On Friday, the MPs report concluded: “We are satisfied Andrew Sells has the professional competence and personal independence required for the post of chairman of Natural England. We wish Mr Sells every success in his new post.”

Sells was until recently chair of the Garden Centre Group and has also chaired the property developer Linden Homes. The Defra statement said he “has planted thousands of young trees and created acres of wildlife habitat where none existed before” at his farm.

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