A footpath on Mr Sells's land was only unblocked after his appearance before MPs

A footpath on Mr Sells's land was only unblocked after his appearance before MPs

The man charged with promoting access to the countryside in England stands accused of unblocking a right of way on his farm only being grilled by MPs about footpaths on his land.

Andrew Sells, the Tory Party donor and treasurer of the right-wing, free-market thinktank Policy Exchange, was being scrutinised before he was appointed chair of Natural England.

Campaigners said there is a history of blocked footpaths on Mr Sells’s Wiltshire land, and even now rights of way across his estate are not clear.

The Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation charity, said when he was questioned last week by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, he gave a categoric assurance footpaths on his land were clear, open and available.

A fence blocked the footpath until recently

A fence blocked the footpath until recently

The OSS said: “This was not true. Two days later he had removed three fences which were blocking Luckington footpath 21 on his land at Sandy Farm, Sopworth, to make the footpath walkable as the law requires.

“Another footpath, Luckington footpath 20, passes alongside his farm and across a tennis court and was unmarked and off-putting to walkers. Since the hearing it has been waymarked, although inadequately.

Kate Ashbrook, the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, inspected the paths on 8 and 15 December, before and after the committee hearing.

She said: “Mr Sells was unwise to give his categoric assurance to the committee, but we are pleased he acted so quickly, though belatedly, in removing the obstructions from the footpath.

“The waymarking for which, according to Wiltshire County Council, the highway authority, Mr Sells was personally responsible, is dismal. The waymarks – plastic yellow arrows – have been placed on the tops of posts or on low stumps of sawn-off wood a few inches off the ground.

“They are hard to spot and can easily be missed. Absurdly the paths have mostly been marked in one direction only, largely going away from Mr Sells’s house.

A footpath across a tennis court is 'offputting', the OSS said

A footpath across a tennis court is 'offputting', the OSS said

“The path across the tennis court remains off-putting. It is apparent that his response to the parliamentary committee’s questions has been grudging and botched at best.

“One of Natural England’s statutory purposes is ‘promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation’, and Mr Sells agreed with Mrs Lewell-Buck [one of the MPs on the select committee] that ‘it would be a very great concern’ if he had paths on his land which were blocked when he was appointed to the post of chairman of Natural England.

“In fact, the state of his paths had been the subject of complaint by the local Ramblers’ Association as long ago as 2008.

“Clearly, anyone in that position should have impeccable access to and over their land, and we welcome these improvements on Mr Sells’s land and look for more.”

When grough approached Natural England, a spokesman said it could not comment until Andrew Sells’s appointment as chair of Natural England is confirmed by the Secretary of State.

Until that time he has not been officially appointed. Natural England referred grough to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Government department that oversees it.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The issue was resolved as soon as it had been brought to Mr Sells’s attention.

“We can confirm that the footpaths over his land are open, accessible and clearly marked.”

Andrew Sells, a venture capitalist who is on record as giving £140,000 to the Conservative Party, succeeds farmer Poul Christensen as chair of the advisory body on England’s outdoors.

Campaigners say waymarkers, such as the one circled at the foot of the right-hand gate post, are hard to spot

Campaigners say waymarkers, such as the one circled at the foot of the right-hand gate post, are hard to spot

Natural England said: “The recruitment process was conducted in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies.

“All appointments are made on merit and political activity plays no part in the selection process.”

NE said Mr Sells was managing director of a venture capital business, which he co-founded.

His non-executive career began with Linden Homes, a company which he chaired from start-up. It said he recently retired as chairman of the Garden Centre Group, formerly Wyevale, leading the group from near bankruptcy to becoming a strong business.

He has held trustee roles with the Royal Horticultural Society and the Policy Exchange, since 2007, and is currently chairing a Department of Work and Pensions task force looking at ways of improving the efficiency of the DWP’s Work Programme, it added.

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