The experience of having been present and witnessed a Natural England Board meeting is still fresh in my mind.
I was struck in particular at how important a role the chair, Poul Christensen, played in helping his fellow Non-ex members to reach a fair decision on the notification of Lodge Hill SSSI. The fact that none of these members understood the National Vegetatation Classification, a core principle underlying most SSSI notifications, led me to write to Sir Poul and offer my services to the Board, to provide a short training event for them, so they can understand what the NVC is and how it can be used and abused. I have been using the NVC for 20 years and teaching abuot it for 10 so I have some experience. I have not yet had a reply.
Poul Christensen is a farmer, through and through. He knows farming inside out, and has been a central player in the agriculture industry for decades. He co-founded the Tenants Farmers Association. He clearly also knows quite a lot about conservation (apart from plants), as evidenced by his chairing of the NE Board. He is now leaving the Board as chair after a long stint and he should be applauded for having done a good job in very difficult circumstances (especially the last 3 years.)
Defra has announced that they have chosen his successor – Edward Andrew Perronet Sells, known as Andrew Sells.
The process for selecting and appointing non-exec Board members to Government Bodies is scrupulous – it says so here.
The process is based on three principles, Merit, Fairness and Openness. Merit is the over-riding principle of the three:
“This means providing Ministers with a choice of high quality candidates, drawn from a strong and diverse field, whose skills, experience and qualities have been judged to best meet the needs of the public body or statutory office in question.”
Fairness: The process must be “objective, impartial and consistent”.
Openness appears to just mean that the post has to be advertised publicly and not confined to cosy back-room chats at Mayfair Gentleman’s clubs.
So who is Andrew Sells? He is an accountant, he worked at a City Investment Bank for 10 years before becoming a venture capitalist. What you may ask is a venture capitalist. These are the people in the Dragon’s Den. They look around for businesses to buy (often with massive loans from Banks) and build, then sell them on for a big profit. Just the sort of thing that would give you the skills, qualities and experience you would need to chair the statutory nature conservation body for England, no?
ok, perhaps he is interested in nature? Yes! He is a very keen gardener and has been treasurer of the Royal Horticultural Society. That experience should serve him. The RHS are a much greener organisation now than they were when I was at Plantlife, and they refused point blank to sign up to anything promoting reduction of peat-use in horticulture. In those days Thorne Moors was still being mined for peat. He is also apparently very interested in growing trees.
Well those are qualities that you would imagine would apply to rather a lot of people who might be interested in becoming Chair of NE. Anything else?
Sells was chair from 2009-2012, of the Garden Centre Group, which owned Wyevale and a number of other Garden Centre chains. And he was in that chair when GCG was sold at a huge loss to the main shareholders, including £100M write off for HBOS, now Lloyds TSB – who funded the expansion of the chain (remember what I said about bank-funded venture capitalists?), before Sells arrived. No blame attached to Sells. The advisers to the sale were Rothschilds.
What other experience might Sells have had to qualify him for the post. Well, he co-founded Linden Homes, a property development business specialising in developing brownfield sites for residential housing. Thank goodness they weren’t involved in the Lodge Hill debacle! Linden Homes had been a public company with shares being traded on the Stock Exchange. Sells, with his business partner Philip Davies, took Linden Homes back into private ownership in 2001 where he acquired a 5% stake in the company. The buyout was funded by HBOS to the tune of a 35% stake in the company, sold for £73M at the time. Linden Homes did well and Sells and Davies sold the company for a healthy profit in 2006. the adviser for the sale were Rothschilds. Prescient timing given what happened to the housing market shortly after. Sells’ former close partner is now a director and board member of the Homes Builders Federation.
Linden Homes was focussing its effort to develop brownfield sites in the Thames Valley during the 2000s. That should give Sells an interesting perspective on Natural England’s continuing engagements with the house builders adjacent to the Thames Basin Heaths European Sites.
Anything else relevant? Sells is a non-exec board member of a company that runs crematoria for local authorities and was chair of another crematoria company for 10 years previously. That experience of disposing of the remains of dead entities may come in handy if Natural England carry on defying their Government sponsors as they did with the Lodge Hill notification.
Ok, still not a massive amount of experience with conservation, though plenty of boards attended or chaired.
Now going back to the appointment process, it does state very clearly that political activity is not in itself a barrier to appointment, which is reasonable. What sort of political activity might Sells have been involved with?
He is a major tory party donor. He has donated £137,500 to the Tory party. He was also co-treasurer of the No 2 AV campaign. This campaign was ostensibly a cross-party campaign against introducing a bit of proportional representation into the electoral process (was we know now it would let in many UKIP candidates – is that a reason for not having it?). It turns out that No2AV was actually a bit of an astroturfing outfit, as it was principally funded by tory party donors (£25k from Sells) and led by Matthew Elliott, who was “on sabbatical” from the thinktank The Taxpayers Alliance, which is apparently funded by a group of Eurosceptic tycoons.
As well as being former treasurer to the RHS, Sells is also treasurer to the Policy Exchange. The Policy Exchange is definitely a tory-donor funded Thinktank and they generate all sorts of interesting ideas for and on behalf of the more right wing neoconservative end of the Tory party. PE for example developed the ideas of Biodiversity Offsetting now so popular with our Defra ministers. It is therefore not surprising that Sells has also been asked to chair a group to help the Department of Work and Pensions develop “best practice” for The Work Programme.
Perhaps Sells will devise a way to bring lots of unemployed people to NE so they can plant his beloved trees on NNRs: and perhaps a few shrubberies.
If you think Andrew Sells has been recruited in a way that falls short of the standards set out by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, you can complain to Defra. If they fail to satisfy you, you can take your complaint to the Commissioner.