• Tory donor appointed chair of Govt nature body

    4th January 2014 | News | Claire
  • A venture capitalist and major Tory party donor has been chosen by ministers to be chair of the statutory wildlife and nature watchdog, Natural England.

    Andrew Sells, a chartered accountant, donated £111,250 to the Tories in 2010-11. Sells is the preferred candidate of the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, and will be questioned by MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs select committee before being confirmed, although their advice is not binding.

    A statement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “All appointments are made on merit and political activity plays no part in the selection process.” It said Sells was identified following a rigorous selection process chaired by an independent assessor. Sells was chairman of housing developer Linden Homes from its inception and chairman of the Garden Centre Group, formerly Wyevale.

    The appointment comes at a sensitive time for both Natural England and the government, which has had to defend itself from accusations from 41 conservation groups that only four of its 25 pledges on environment and nature are progressing well.

    Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, said: “Natural England provides practical advice, grounded in science on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth; it is therefore highly inappropriate for the chair to be a former investment banker and Tory party chum. Paterson’s announcement is another example of the Tories handing out yet more jobs for the boys.”

    Some Conservatives attempted to scrap Natural England earlier in 2013, according to the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, who said his party’s fight with its coalition partners on green issues was “an endless battle; we’ve had to fight tooth and nail”.

    Natural England has also been at the centre of the controversy over the badger cull in England, which is intended to curb tuberculosis in cattle.

    It issues the licences for the culling, which is described by leading scientists as mindless and a costly distraction, and its board approved long extensions to the culls after shooters fell far short of the minimum number originally specified.

    The board voted by 5-4 to approve the extension on Gloucestershire, but its lead scientist, Oxford University’s Professor David Macdonald, said the advice from Defra’s chief vet “that killing further badgers would lead to better disease control is not easily reconciled with the evidence.”

    Environmental campaigners will be closely watching what position Sells, who has connections to housebuilding, takes on biodiversity offsetting, a scheme which Paterson is currently pushing hard in which property developers can compensate for damage to the environment by improving sites elsewhere.

    Paterson said in September: “Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy”. But some environment groups dubbed the plan a “licence to trash nature”.

    According to declarations to the Electoral Commission, Sells made donations of £77,250 to the Conservative party shortly before the 2010 general election and made further donations of £31,500 in support of the campaign against the 2011 alternative vote referendum on proportional representation.

    According to the Defra statement, Sells “lives on a small farm in north Wiltshire where he has planted thousands of young trees and created acres of wildlife habitat where none existed before”. The current chair of Natural England, who will step down at the end of 2013, is Poul Christensen, a career farmer who runs a family dairy business.

    • This article was amended on 29 November 2013. The earlier version said Andrew Sells co-founded the venture capital group Sovereign Capital. That information was included in a government press release, but the company has since contacted the Guardian to inform us that, while Andrew Sells was a co-founder of Nash Sells & Partners Limited, he left that firm six months before it was reborn, after significant changes, as Sovereign Capital in November 2000. A later sentence about Sovereign Capital was also removed from the article.