As I recall there was a lot of effort involved in turning Parliamentary Select Committees from a cross-between talking shops and clubs, into an influential element of Parliamentary procedure and ultimately an addition to the British Democratic process. Watching the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee question Natural England chairman designate Andrew Sells yesterday made me wonder whether it was all worth it.
The questioning was almost entirely insipid, and in places verged on the banal. MPs apparently need to be paid a handsome salary in order to attract the brightest and the best into politics. On this showing, they may need to think about more than just salary.
Still it was possible to find out something more about Sells, despite the quality of the “inquiry”.
We know now that there was a “very strong field of candidates”
Sells “has always been a country boy” and after a life of high finance, “at age 55, decided to use half my life to put something back, being a useful public servant.” He is now 65.
Putting something back for Sells means being Treasurer of the Royal Horticultural Society, Treasurer of Policy Exchange, a co-treasurer of the No2AV campaign, and on the Board of Open Europe, a business-led anti-regulation Eurosceptic Thinktank.Oh and chairing a working group at DWP looking at how to make the disastrous Work Programme work. Accountant giants Deloitte have just given up on it, so I guess they know it’s a pup.
Apart from the RHS, I think what Sells meant by “putting something back” is helping people like him to express their views about the economy and society (profit-driven, small government, little regulation) in an influential way, rather than doing things for the public good. I could well be wrong though.
Anyway we now know he is “passionate about the countryside, lives in the countryside, was born in the countryside. He “can understand and empathise with those who want to improve the countryside.”We know someone else who wants to improve the countryside, SoS Owen Paterson, so that will help.
EFRA Chair Anne McIntosh, was particular gimlet like in her questioning – she forensically dissected his past, noted that being NE chair was “different to work done before, in high finance” and asked whether this meant he was “qualified for position of chair of Natural Environment (sic)”.
Natural Environment! The chair of the EFRA committee does not remember the name of Natural England.
Sells explained that he had been pleasantly surprised by “how much I enjoyed doing something I didnt know anything about (DWP)” so that should mean he will enjoy being Natural England chair, but does not necessarily qualify him for the job.
He then repeated “I feel passionate about preserving countryside. Can make a contribution too.” He had insight that “part of [the] work is hard work and chairing, understanding science and technology.”
McIntosh dived in with another probing question: “when do you expect to take up the post?” my heart sank – this was a gentle chat not an enquiry.
Sells explained he had a “long standing commitment to go to Australia and New Zealand” and would be back at the end of January.
Mcintosh was back like a flash “what does the natural environment mean to you, which parts do you most relate to?”
Sells not surprisingly explained that he “most relate[d] to farming and the countryside. I used to work as a boy on a farm” he drove a tractor and his job was to ” increase every field on every farm.”
He recognised that farming had come a long way since then and even knew about farmland bird decline, though I think his 2/3 decline figure might a bit awry.
He seemed pretty sure he knew a lot about the environment (useful when chairing the new organisation Natural Environment) apart from marine. He explained that he doesnt “farm commercially but I roughly understand how grants and incentives work.”
Asked whether he would follow in Poul Christensens footsteps and go around the country meeting farmers he agreed it was “very important, more important than sitting in meetings in london.” Phew Defra can relax now.
Jim Fitzpatrick noted Sells was “a major donor to tory party”. Though there were on the same side of the no 2 AV campaign.
Fitzpatrick asked if Sells was conscious of political criticism about his appointment. Sells explained that most of his “donation” to the tory party was a painting he had commissioned of David Cameron before he became PM – it had only cost him £15k and it was now valued at £75k. He went on to state the total donations to the Tory Party were about £140k and actual cash donations run to about 15k a year. He was “not in Lord Ashcroft’s league”. That’s a tory fundraisers joke by the way. He also noted that his donations to registered charities were “multiples of £15k annually”, but then he also forgot to mention that The Policy Exchange, of which he was treasurer, is a charity. Charity treasurers are often tasked with gathering funds from their friends. That’ll be part of his “putting something back”. One could call Policy Exchange the incubator for Tory advisors who become politicians. Nick Boles came from there, and Alex Morton has just left PX to join the Number 10 policy unit, working under Boris Johson’s smarter brother Jo, on housing.
Sells now set out his stall. He won’t “give any more money to political parties” and he’s “going to be studiously non political, sit on the metaphorical cross benches” and “have the support of either party, no party or any party”. I wonder whether that means he won’t be giving any more money to Tory thinktanks.
He was then questioned about footpaths on his land, several of which are blocked, one by a tennis court. He claimed he adhered entirely to rights of way legislation. When pressed he claimed that it must have been someone else’s land, despite the fact that the footpath runs directly past his house. Apparently it is a genuine oversight on his part.
After some very lukewarm questioning about whether he was backing out of all other directorships and interests (he thinks he is), Neil Parish stepped up. Parish is generally good value – a Somerset Dairy farmer, who knows more about conservation than you might think. He can be disarmingly inquisitive.
Parish asked Sells “where would you like to take NE?” Sells suggested that NE needed a period of stability and no major transformational reform. Sells now remembered to mention NE’s statutory duties and independent future (was he briefed by NE Exec Board Directors?) but may need to do more for less (we all know more cuts are coming.)
Sells said he was “concerned about biodiversity schemes are under threat.” but I don’t know exactly what he meant – probably Stewardship would be my guess. He praised NE staff for being “passionate” about nature and was clearly looking forward to “restructurng the board.” and bringing in a “stronger area management team. ”
Parish probed – any specific gaps in the Directors skills?”
Sells produced an interesting metaphor – work with what skills the board has and “put pit props around what you dont have”.
Parish asked Sells about Lindem Homes and “what lessons have you learnt about the balance between environmental improvements and rural growth?”
Sells explained that Linden was a “pioneer in developing brownfield sites” that had “transformed Caterham barracks into a modern village”. “I was always the one fighting for preservation and trees”. “I learnt you can do huge amounts of development and preserve the environment. ”
Parish asked him about Biodiversity Offsetting. Sells said
“I don’t want to get into a conversation about Biodiversity Offsetting” before doing just that. Sells said “developers say its very expensive”, but Sells felt that “quite a lot of compensation to the envronment is not being enforced presently”. He wanted to “hold developers to greater account” and said “I dont want anyone to believe I will be a friend to the developers. I think I know exacly what they want – they will have to comply wth statutes they operate under.”
Parish though Offsetting would be a “good idea if its practical and delivers something for the environment.” But Sells cautioned “If Offsetting becomes the norm, we will overlook the need to actually conserve what is there. We should “not damage what otherwise might be damaged”. He asked “How do you offset some ancient woodlands that HS2 are going to remove? it can’t be done.
After what may have been an inintentionally open airing of views on a hot topic, Sells went into professional chair mode, and impressively dodged some questions about HS2 and gave anodyne management speak answers to boring questions about plans and relationships with Defra and other departments. He got into his stride.
It seems to me that Sells could potentially become a good NE chair, given the right training. I think he is willing to learn. Although he is clearly a serious Tory supporter, and probably on the eurosceptic side of the party (and worryingly deregulatory for the chair of a key regulator) he is also well-connected and potentially influential for good. I’m not prepared to write him off just because of his politics.