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Andrew Sells, the new chairman of Natural England, the government’s statutory adviser on countryside recreation, has hastily reopened a blocked right of way across his Wiltshire land following his appointment.
Mr Sells, who is a venture capitalist and a major Tory party donor, was scrutinised by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 11 December before his appointment is confirmed. There, in response to a question from Emma Lewell-Buck MP, he gave ‘a categoric assurance that the footpaths over my land are clear, open and available’. 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, our general secretary, inspected the paths on 8 and 15 December, before and after the committee hearing. She says: ‘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 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. 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 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,’ Kate concludes.