‘I give a categoric assurance to this committee that the footpaths over my land are clear, open and available.’
So said Mr Andrew Sells, the prospective chairman of Natural England, in response to scrutiny by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee on 11 December.
He spoke a little too quickly. Two days later he had hurriedly removed three fences which were blocking Luckington footpath 21 which crosses his land at Sandy Farm, Sopworth in Wiltshire.
It is always useful, when someone is standing for public appointment, to pay a visit to their land and see the state of the paths. It is surprising how often one finds that they have let things slip. Mr Sells, venture capitalist and Tory-party funder, was no exception.
When I walked around Sandy Farm on 8 December, three days before he was to appear before the Efra Committee for pre-appointment scrutiny, I found that the path (Luckington footpath 20) which runs past his house and across a tennis-court had no waymarks at all, despite the council having a legal duty to erect waymarks to enable people to find their way, and despite the route being unwelcoming to walkers.
Worse still, though, I found that an adjoining path, Luckington footpath 21, was obstructed by fences, again with no waymarks.
Prompted by my briefing, Emma Lewell-Buck MP, a member of the Efra Committee, questioned Mr Sells about the state of his paths. At this point he gave the categoric assurance above, and agreed 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—which has a statutory purpose of ‘promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation’.
It is surprising that he had forgotten that, in 2008, his agent consulted the local Ramblers’ group about a diversion of footpath 20, and they complained of lack of waymarks, obstructions and an unofficial diversion, none of which had been put right.
Now at last footpath 21 is walkable, and Wiltshire Council checked this last Friday.
The rights-of-way officer tells me that he gave Mr Sells enough plastic waymark-discs to ensure that the paths across his land could be properly marked and left him to it. Unfortunately Mr Sells has used these sparingly and inconspicuously, on the top of posts (some of them very short) and mainly pointing away from his farm as though people only walk in one direction.
I’ve asked the rights-of-way officer to return to Sandy Farm and to let me know when the waymarks have been installed properly. Natural England’s boss will soon have paths to be proud of.