Natural Selection

Former Tory minister who tried to sell off forests is given Natural England role

A former Tory minister who tried to sell off England’s forests has been appointed to the board of Natural England, leading Labour to accuse the government of “cronyism”.

Helena Horton 

Dame Caroline Spelman has been given a senior role with the government’s nature watchdog and will set its strategy and policy, as well as overseeing the use of public money. Other trustees announced on Friday include Mel Austen, a professor of ocean and society at the University of Plymouth, and Lynn Dicks, who leads a research group working on sustainable agriculture and insect conservation.

Questions have been raised over the appropriateness of the appointment, as the former environment secretary previously had to apologise for trying to privatise England’s woodland.

Her plans to change the ownership of 258,000 hectares (637,000 acres) of state-owned woodland in 2011 were widely criticised at the time and caused a Tory revolt. She had to take part in a humiliating climbdown in front of fellow MPs. She said at the time: “I have taken a decision to end the consultation on the future of the public forest estate and I take full responsibility for that. I am doing so because it is quite clear from the early responses to the consultation that the public and many honourable members are not happy with the proposals we set out.”

The shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, raised questions over the appropriateness of her appointment. “It appears the conveyor belt of Conservative cronyism is alive and well,” he said.

“The decision to appoint the former secretary of state for the environment who attempted to sell off England’s forests to the board of Natural England raises serious questions of judgment from Defra ministers.

“Natural England exists to conserve our natural environment for the benefit of future generations. This flies in the face of somebody who thought it appropriate to sell off some of our most treasured environmental assets.”

Announcing the positions, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Defra ministers have announced today the appointment of three new members to Natural England’s board: Prof Mel Austen, Dr Lynn Dicks and Dame Caroline Spelman. These appointments are for a three-year term and will run from 1 March 2023 for Lynn Dicks and Dame Caroline Spelman, and 1 April 2023 for Mel Austen.

“The appointments were made in accordance with the governance code on public appointments published by the Cabinet Office. All appointments are made on merit and political activity plays no part in the selection process.”

Defra has been contacted for comment.

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