Transylvanian Count to Chair Bloodbank

A new government appointment provides a chilling insight into its priorities.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 5th December 2013

You want to appoint a new chairman for Natural England, the government body responsible for protecting nature.

Do you look for:

a. someone with a background in ecology and a track record of interest in the natural world?


b. someone with a background in accountancy, investment banking and house building? And a track record of making large donations to the Conservative party?

Doh! b. of course. What were you thinking?

If you’re searching for someone to protect the natural world, Andrew Sells might not be the first person who comes to mind.

But if you’re searching for someone to implement your programme of pricing and commodifying nature, of offsetting biodiversity and “unbundling” the living world so that it can be traded on financial markets, of “harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitizations enhance the return on investment of an environmental bond”, he might be just the chap.

He’s the preferred candidate of the environment secretary, Owen Paterson. This means that, barring an upset in parliament, he is likely to become the next chair. So what could have prompted Mr Paterson to choose him? It couldn’t have anything to do with the £111,000 he gave to the Conservative party in 2010 and 2011, could it? The environment department, Defra, assures us that “all appointments are made on merit and political activity plays no part in the selection process”. Phew, that clears it up.

It couldn’t be connected to his founding and chairing Linden Homes, could it? Housebuilding projects present some of the major threats to the wildlife and habitats Natural England is supposed to be protecting. Holding the line against damaging developments, in the face of intense political pressure from the government, is one of the agency’s stiffest challenges.

It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Sells, as the conservation ecologist Miles King points out, is treasurer of the Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange, could it? Policy Exchange, like most such groups, refuses to say who funds it. But it was founded and run by senior Conservatives. Its first director was Nick Boles, now the Tory planning minister, whose pronouncements have so enraged conservationists and delighted, er, housebuilders.

Policy Exchange also happens to be the body which, in Owen Paterson’s words, “has put [biodiversity] offsetting on the political agenda”.

So it could only be because Mr Sells has planted some trees on his hobby farm, a fact which – unlike certain other details – Defra is keen to emphasise. With this credential, he’s plainly better placed to run the organisation than people with a background in natural science and decades of experience of defending biodiversity.

If the appointment is not blocked, we can expect Mr Sells enthusiastically to implement Owen Paterson’s priorities, which Mr Paterson outlined in a speech last month.

The first of them is “to grow the rural economy”. Among the mechanisms he proposes are pricing what he calls “natural capital” (you know, that thing we used to call nature) and offsetting biodiversity. Both are highly controversial, for good reason in my view. Here (linked throughout this sentence) are some of the reasons why.

He also announced his intention to allow farmers to start dredging the rivers and streams crossing their land, which ecologists say can have devastating impacts on the structure and life of the riverbed, and can cause flooding downstream.

Where did he make this speech? Oh yes, at Policy Exchange, of which Andrew Sells is treasurer.

So perhaps Sells’s influence at Natural England will be balanced by people with a different perspective? For whom, perhaps, nature comes first and money comes second? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The chief executive of Natural England, like Mr Sells, qualified as an accountant.

The deputy chairman, David Hill – the man immediately under Sells on the board – also works as the chairman of the Environment Bank. What is the Environment Bank? It calls itself “a private company working to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for both developers and landowners.” How he can be both deputy chairman of Natural England and chairman of the Environment Bank – whose fortunes are partly dependent on decisions taken by Natural England – is anyone’s guess. But it must be OK, because last year the government approved his re-appointment.

Or perhaps Owen Paterson will weigh the advice he receives from Andrew Sells against good advice from other sources? Whoops. An article in the Independent last week revealed that, during more than a year in post, Paterson has had just two, cursory meetings with his own chief scientist, Ian Boyd.

Given the quality of Boyd’s advice, on badger culling and on the treatment of scientists for example, that might be just as well. Or it would be if Paterson were getting better advice from somewhere else. Instead, the article suggested, he appears to rely on the claims of discredited loons, in particular his brother-in-law Viscount Ridley, who pours unscientific scorn on efforts to defend the environment, and oversaw, as chairman of Northern Rock, the first run on a British bank since the 19th Century.

What a happy land we’re in. And how grateful we should be that the places and wildlife we love are in such safe hands.