“…the need to balance the sometime conflicting requirements of enhanced public access with the conservation piece.“
Its unclear what is really meant by enhanced when the current byelaws make it clear access is permitted at all times when not in use? It is also unclear why such draconian restrictions are really needed when the 2600 acres of Pirbright Ranges – a 24/7 no-go area – is already off limits.
We have also seen a recent spate of trail building at Tunnel Hill. This has reportedly been assessed as “criminal damage”.
But TAG see the issues as less clear-cut and the summary might read financial benefits beat principles hands down.. The following post picks into each and examines how DIO themselves treat the lands.
The Conservation Piece
Firstly, we set out what this piece isn’t about. We are not examining how the army use the lands as military training is the primary reason to exist as open space. The army are pretty good custodians and those chemical toilets we see are there to reduce the nutrient load (poo and wee if you are under 7) on the heathland.
The heathland is a rare and important habitat. Well drained sandy soils with low nutrients are what make up most of the military training estate. The underlying geology is very poor agricultural land which is why the army found a huge open space to train at Aldershot in 1854. The area is so special it has an organisation devoted to caring for it – The Thames Basin Partnership – and DIO are listed as a partner.
Three designations protect the lands:
Site of Specific Scientific Interest – SSSI
Special Protected Area – SPA
Priority Habitat – Lowland Heath
The SPA designation is important at this time of year. Ground nesting birds (GNBs in MTB-speak) use the open spaces of the heath to nurture and raise their young. We can all do our bit to help by following the guidance. TAG certainly recognise the value GNBs bring for their presence helps prevent development.
We were surprised to find a filmset plonked on top of the heather at Tunnel Hill. Checking the wildlife designation maps the set is set in an area covered by SSSI, SPA and Priority Habitat.
Worse still, the set is being constructed right at the start of GNB season.
Filming and filmsets earn hard cash. Everyone needs to earn a crust but it’s galling to read DIO wish to block recreational access for conservation reasons whilst allowing commercial activity to do the opposite of what conservation really needs.
Rumour has it George Clooney is directing a film and I bet the birds will appreciate the star studded presence on the common. Or maybe not.
Hypocrisy? We certainly think so. But it gets worse…lets have a look at the trail digging issue.
Shift the Dirt
Before we go into this one…we need to stress the issues of digging trail features cause:
Taking a shovel onto the land with the idea of digging a new jump or building a berm without the landowners permission is going put the sport we love in a very bad light.
A little light trail maintenance that reduces harm and reduces landowner risk isn’t going to trigger a visit by the trail flattening crew but a new gulley jump or step up does not fit into TAG’s code of conduct.
The recent trail building at Tunnel Hill have stepped over the line and deep into creating a problem for the wider MTB community. We hear MOD police taped off the area whilst muttering “criminal damage” and the flattening crew have already paid a visit removing the trail.
But hold on a minute. Are MTB the only users of the lands who shift a bit of dirt?
Setting aside the army again (training primacy rules) we are aware of land users who shift a lot of dirt.
And before anyone thinks we are bashing another user group…rest assured we are not…
Every year the Natterjack Enduro is run in one of the local areas. Last year it was Weavers Down near Bordon and for a couple of years it was run in Long Valley.
When it comes to moving soil these boys and girls can shift more dirt in one lap than the local digging community can move in a year.
The course of the enduro will persist for a long time. The route of the 2018 enduro can still be seen and ridden in Long Valley but watching some of the UK and European champions on our own doorstep comes highly recommended.
But hang on…isn’t there a difference between random trail building and authorised and paid for events?
Yes, very much so.
But seeing the issue of trail building labelled “criminal damage” is particularly galling for TAG volunteers who worked on the DIO-solicited digging area proposals…please read on…
In 2019 Mark Ludlow (Security and Access) and Lt Cdr Bishop (Commanding Officer) both expressed an interest in seeing digging conducted in a managed way…TAG were tasked with pulling together a proposal for two potential areas…research was done…digger community fellows approached for their views…areas scoped and a report written and delivered.
And then silence.
Not even an acknowledgement of receipt or the report’s existence. The cost to TAG was volunteer time and we remain at a loss to understand how civil servants could treat taxpayers with such contempt.
Had the report been enacted we are confident the lands and our community would be in a different place.
There is a Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint on DIO’s failures to engage in good faith with the local community working its way through the process. We will report back once we hear its findings.
Back to the issue of enduros and trail diggers shifting the soil…
To reiterate the point…in no way are we opposed to the land being used for an enduro. TAG believes the lands should be accessible to all, including organised motorsport.
But we do not appreciate hypocrisy… double standards are deeply objectionable and TAG firmly believes the Seven Principles of Public Life are considered optional by DIO staff.
Follow the Money
In TAG’s view it seems DIO will give a green light to landscape the grounds or build a film set on top of an SSSI/SPA as long as their palms are crossed with silver.
Recreational access is generally very low impact in these areas but because no one pays then the working presumption is DIO sees the local community as a financial and legal liability?
So to help DIO show there is a financial return on recreational access TAG have a simple proposal.
TAG will pay for everyone’s access and hand over the cash to make everything right and proper.
TAG are suggesting the rate be fixed in perpetuity at just £1 per year.
This token gesture covers the entire community and helps everyone fit into the money talks model of access DIO seem to be endorsing.
TAG will see if the lands can be booked for 12 months on that basis, but we won’t hold our breath.
However, we will be raising the issue of double standards and DIO’s behaviour with our local MPs. We would urge you to do likewise and the usual WriteToThem link makes the process simple and straightforward.
Human activity changes the world around us and it should come as no surprise mountain biking has an impact on the planet.
The good news is comparative studies put mountain biking in the light touch category. Thats not to say others are bad, it’s just we tend to ride in single file and leave narrow tracks. There are a few studies available for download, including this one.
One significant factor is the soil and terrain. Our blessing of light sandy soils equals excellent drainage and year-round riding or walking on the military lands. Try going for a walk or ride on chalk or clay after heavy rain and a swift lesson in geology will be delivered in the form of sticky, heavy mud clinging to your boots or bike. And it won’t wash off in a hurry.
DIO may resent casual recreational access but the real irritation isn’t Section 2 of the byelaws, it’s the underlying geology that rinses clean by just whispering “hosepipe” at the end of a ride. Given the choice who wouldn’t want to go for a winter walk or ride on well drained terrain?
Erosion – But How Much?
But for all the positives of MTB we will have witnessed a trail that is changing by erosion. Rainfall patterns are changing too and short, heavy downpours will run off faster and use gullies to drain…taking with it loose soil. The steeper the slope and straighter trail the greater the runoff and erosion.
Beacon Hill has been subject to erosion. We fully expect DIO to hold up trail erosion as a good reason to ban every cyclist on every trail…and their track record of using rational evidence to set policy will present a compelling but mostly false narrative leaving the decision makers with a view that Caesars Camp will cease to exist as a hill all thanks to MTB if nothing is done.
So what could we do to counter any emotive or egocentric policy setting?
Here at TAG we always fall back on evidence…and there are ways and means of precisely measuring changes caused by erosion with precise surveying tools (thank you to our friends at One Point Basingstoke), a decent camera or drone and some very clever software.
The technique is called photogrammetry and its used for everything from preserving evidence at serious road collisions to documenting shipwrecks.
So we have selected a couple of trails and scanned them in 3D. Click on the link to take a look:
In 3~6 months we can repeat the process and measure the differences. Early results have hinted at some erosion on one trail but its volume is measured as less than a half a wheel barrow load over 6 months. A small group of riders who care (and who don’t?) would have the trail restored in an hour…
This approach will deliver hard evidence that can then be used for two things:
Counter any subjective reasoning proposed by DIO to ban mountain biking
Tell us how fast the trails are wearing and plan to repair or divert as required.
Objective evidence is one of the principles of Standards in Public Life. It goes without saying we are more than happy to discuss using the best evidence and mitigation of trail damage with DIO, should they choose to engage.
Causing Harm/Closing Trails
There are a couple of trails that are causing concern and our riding is damaging some precious prehistoric remains.
In July 2021 DIO SE received a report entitled “Scheduled Monument Quinquennial Condition Assessment Surveys, Aldershot Training Area, Hampshire”.
For a 15 page report it mentions mountain biking or cycling no fewer than 17 times, and its not always positive. The main concerns over trail damage are occurring on some of the archeology at Caesars Camp, and we do agree there are some changes needed.
At this point we must point out a few things:
Its highly likely public money was spent on this report
Lt Col Bishop (Commanding Officer) and staff are likely to have sight of the report
It took a Freedom of Information request confirm the report’s existence
It took a second request to be provided with a copy
At no point in the 6 months between publication and the FOI request has DIO approached TAG to discuss any concerns regarding MTB damage.
We can draw our own conclusions as to why DIO have sat on the report and continued to bear witness to trail damage. Maybe it’s because one area where walkers and cyclists are blamed for damage is exactly the same area where TSMs like to drive their pickups?
The report author didn’t witness a TSM on patrol, but we have some photos showing vehicle tracks damaging the monument, if needed.
If DIO had raised the report with TAG we could have worked together last year to take action to close the trails and prevent more damage. Three trails that cross the ditch and bank are causing erosion to the 2500 year old fort and to prevent damage all we need do is choose not to ride these short sections of trail.
The vegetation will recover and help stabilise the soil. This will prevent further erosion and limit additional damage.
So this blog post really is an appeal to everyone asking that we individually and collectively stop riding over the ditch and bank of the Iron Age fort at Caesars Camp. It’s a precious piece of our cultural heritage protected by law (its scheduled by English Heritage) and we can do the responsible thing by applying “Do no harm” principles as much as possible.
What we cannot and must not do is repeat DIO’s “do nothing and watch them fail” approach as this hands good reason to anyone who wants to ban MTB to call for exactly that.
In total the trails doing the harm are a mere 327 metres in length. When compared to what else is available in the area – a whopping 109.88 kms for Long Valley and Caesars Camp combined – then its not a major loss.
We have prepared an overview of the trails:
Update 13th February – a ride yesterday added another 10kms of trails – total distance is now 118.9kms for both areas.
It’s not quite complete but a very good guide as to what is there. You can download a copy here:
TAG are quietly confident the local community cares about the lands. No one is setting out to deliberately cause harm, but once known and identified we can all do the right thing and the thing right and ride elsewhere letting Caesars Camp ditch and bank heal.
As 2021 starts to fade into memory its time to take stock of things and think about the future. This TAG post does just that, but we will also remind ourselves of the value of the lands and why casual access when not in use remains more important than ever.
“In the overcrowded and noisy world we live in these areas offer wonderful calm respite for us. Don’t give in to the greed of the few. We need these spaces.” – Local resident
The above quote was drawn from the 2020 review survey of recreational users conducted by our friends at Byelaws Review. The survey was, we believe, the first and only detailed look at how the community uses the lands and their value. For inspiration and justification for Section 2 of the byelaws – casual access at all times when not in use – the quotes are compelling. Even more so when the simple fact that roughly 8500 people took the time to express in their own words their feelings for the lands.
“It is much valued recreational space and used by all ages for so many purposes. We also help to look after it as we can report any misuse and problems before the military may be aware.” – Local Resident
The reports were split by local constituency and they can be downloaded in the following links:
We would encourage everyone to take a moment to read them, not least of which would be those authoring the new byelaws and specifically those whom responsiblity for access lies within DIO SE.
It should come as no surprise to hear two main and significant areas remain subject to draconian restrictions; Long Valley and Ash Ranges.
The political assurances issued from before the fence went up were clear; recreational access when not in use. The Minister of Defence Procurement has been unequivocal with a directive instructing DIO to do just that.
“To be able to get outside into natural woodland, to see the wildlife and be able to run free. All of this is so good for my physical and mental health, and the same for my children.” – Local Resident
Yet as recently as last month we recorded gates locked during a civilian orienteering event on the 8th and from the 13th of December witnessed more dog walkers & joggers than any evidence of military training – let alone the “dangerous” kind the signs claim.
DIO remain unwilling and unable to follow the very basic of instructions yet seem unconcerned that the DANGER signs are consistently publishing misinformation. TAG firmly beleives signs “crying wolf” fail to support a trusted system of safety – something DIO claim the gates exist for.
“…they [military lands] enable us to get out in the fresh air, give us much needed exercise and pure enjoyment of the outside and nature.” – Local Resident
Its regrettable £250,000 of our money was wasted in this way and the lack of gated access continues to trigger casual access restoration. Equally regrettable is watching a branch of the civil service defy politicians and damage community relations whilst failing to uphold the basic standards in public life.
Elsewhere, the technical area at Ash Ranges remains closed with 331 acres of space denied at a time when the community really needed it. The blame game continues with collective responsibility (closure) being forced upon residents while the culprits (vandals) remain unpunished, a policy that has enraged the local vicar.
DIO have all the provisions in the Ash Ranges and Aldershot byelaws to impose fines on those who transgress yet elect to ignore the responsible users and shut them out.
To see the community treated in this manner is truly disappointing. The local politicians seem to be unwilling or unable to tackle DIO over their behaviour and appear supportive of both collective punishment and the DIO proposed “compromise” with the open spaces replaced by a corridor.
The purpose of the corridor through the ranges is – and we quote the Minister for Defence Procurement again – is to “…allow easier access from Ash Vale through the Technical Area on a designated fenced path and out onto the broader Ash Ranges area”
A casual glance at an Ordnance Survey map and its tightly packed contour lines reveals the route will fail to deliver the promise of easier access. Our friends at Save Ash Ranges have published an analysis here.
“The nature is outstanding …I have always enjoyed the open, rugged beauty of MoD land and ranges; they are simply unique & stunning places.” – Local Resident
In summary, whoever planned the routes didn’t complete basic geography lessons, nor understand what makes a path usable, while drawing some coloured areas on a satellite map. Regrettably, we see little evidence of any diligence being applied here.
More evidence of DIO wasting time and money to justify a very erroneous decision?
TAG took a deeper look at this back in March. Mark Ludlow is on public record explaining how DIO have worked up the justification to exclude us from the areas we love. According to the minutes of the Hampshire Countryside Access Forum meeting of December 2020 two designations will apply to the lands:
Protected Areas – closed to all unauthorised persons and;
Controlled Areas – access permitted when the area is not in use for military training
The justification for full closure?
The need to balance the sometime conflicting requirements of enhanced public access with the conservation piece.
Thats correct…DIO seek to exclude “unauthorised” people because of:
…the problems involved with balancing wider public access and the legislative requirement to protect SSSI, SPA and other ecological areas across the estate.
To date no communication withdrawing the stated intent have been issued or received. So it transpires DIO may try and use wildlife protection to prevent recreation, even if the lands are not in use.
“….The importance that the military place on the mental wellbeing of their people should be reflected in providing access to not only the military but the local community who access this vital resource to enjoy this unique environment to maintain their mental health by enhancing their leisure activities. I use these lands to get away from it all on my mountain bike and cannot over emphasise how access to these areas has allowed me to ‘recharge my batteries’ and maintain my physical and mental wellbeing which in turn allows me to be more productive at work…Access to these lands by the public must be preserved for the good of both the community and the military.” – Local Resident
In a letter dated July 2020 Jeremy Quin MP explains further:
The MOD is committed to the protection of designated sites on the Defence Estate. Defence Infrastructure Organisation Ecologists are responsible for identifying designated sites and other important features on the Estate and will provide expert advice during the Byelaws review process. A summary of environmental issues and other proposed protection measures will be included in the Byelaws consultation document.
The value of the lowland heaths – very rare habitat – is recognised and understood. DIO are really dragging the bottom of the barrel if justification of removing Section 2 and denying responsible recreation is limited to protecting wildlife.
It should perhaps come as no surprise to find DIO have previous form at making up rules to suit themselves, and in the case of Middlewick Ranges in Essex DIO generated some “alternative metrics” to deliver an answer that suited their needs and desires when it came to selling the land for housing.
We should therefore expect nothing less here?
“With the increase in house building locally any open space which is home to wildlife and can be used for outdoor activities is becoming more and more valuable.” – Local Resident
Much of the Aldershot lands already carry legal protection – SSSI and SPA – and if these laws are not strong enough then perhaps wider changes to primary legislation are required. Using a military byelaw to protect wildlife we believe is a back door means for DIO to achieve their aims; removal of recreation unless they can be bothered to unlock gates.
From the survey we know 30% of recreational users listed wildlife watching as an activity. If enacted DIO will be guilty – again – of failing to enforce the laws of the lands and serving up more collective punishment. We should not really be surprised when an organisation that understands the cost of everything and the value of nothing continues to ignore the responsible commuity.
The other concern surrounds the application of Controlled Areas. As Long Valley clearly demonstrates DIO will permit access when they can be bothered rather than when the byelaws or indeed a ministerial directive informs them when recreation shall be permitted.
With a failure to deliver against the simplest of instructions – recreation at all times when not in use – and defying a ministerial directive DIO have given clear direction and intent as to how the future may look if the byelaws proceed without challenge.
“…Access to large areas of unspoilt and natural environments are absolutely essential for my mental health and wellbeing, I believe the lack of local and easily accessible areas of true wild forests and woods are responsible for the mental health crisis which is especially prevalent in the south of England. The military lands are a local lifeline for me.” – Local Resident
It is for these reasons TAG have consistenly called for not only preservation of Section 2 casual acess but protection against DIO excesses. More detail can be found in this link.
The really disappointing aspect is DIO can do far better, but it appears only when legally compelled to do so.
Thanks to its right to roam all military training areas in Scotland remain available for casual recreation when not in use and the evidence for this resides in none other than MOD’s own policy document – JSP850 Public Access and Recreation and to quote:
Land subject to military byelaws is excepted from the provisions of the Act [Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003] only during times when the land is being used for a military purpose.
JSP850 covers open access with Scotland being subject – thanks to its laws – to far greater provisions of access:
In Scotland, open access, as defined by the LR(S)A, applies to all forms of non-motorised recreational access.
So even horse riding, cycling and mountain biking is respected and enabled. Beyond “in use” the laws exclude further access “management” or imposition of linear routes.
What is good enough for Scotland is good enough for Aldershot?
Yes, very much so.
We expect and call for the Scotland model of access to apply, more or less reflecting what we have and enjoy today, in spite of JSP850 broadly ignorning the existence of Section 2 of the Aldershot byelaws.
Local Voices Local Power
When faced with such disegenous acts by unelected and unaccounable civil servants its easy to become dispirited. As we have seen in the recent news power from the very top down can be a corrupting influence and without checks and balances those who wield it can act against the interests of society. Bearing witness to corruption and lies does not build a cohesive and respectful community nor does it build trust and cooperation.
But there is one consistent and uplifiting theme that persists.
The community spirit, joy and affection the lands unite us. Nowhere are these expressed finer than in the examples of personal comments sprinkled throughout this post.
If we truly believe there is a better way then each of us is capable of doing the right thing, behaving responsibly and treating the lands and others with respect is the simplest of steps.
We await the publication of byelaws fit for purpose, laws that enable military training when required and full access on a casual basis when the lands are empty. We trust those who are empowered to write the byelaws are taking note, if only to achieve a smooth consulation period where few objections are raised.
Equally, those tasked with ensuring access is enabled have no excuses to ignore a community that cares deeply for the lands and the benefits they bring. Nor can they claim to have not read Jerermy Quin’s directive. Casual recreational access is at the core of Section 2 of the byelaws and respecting it is not only legally required but carries a moral obligaiton too.
We will leave the last word to a local resident:
“In such a highly populated area, and ever more so with the allowed large scale local developments, the open spaces are critical for physical and mental well being. Losing these areas would confine local people to their tiny gardens, footpaths and small SANGS. We completely understand the need for the army to train, but there must be a balance between this and local tax payers needs. In an age where the aim is for peace and to reduce the military forces, it seems astonishing that now they decide to remove the areas from public access.” – Local Resident
Finally, if you wish to raise any concerns, observations or comments with the local MP please use the Write to Them website to drop your elected representative a letter.
Back in April this year our local MP, Ranil Jayawardena, wrote a letter to a few constituents. This was in a response to complaints regarding a severe lack of access at Long Valley, and the fact DIO had not complied with the ministerial directive to keep the gates unlocked when not in use.
Two statements in the letter caught our eye:
I have been told that it is the MoD’s intention to include foot gates at various access points and work has already been commissioned to address this issue…
…officials have been directed to make sure the existing gates are open for public access to Long Valley when it is not in use for military training.
You can read a copy of the letter for yourself here:
Its now December and its painfully apparent DIO South East staff have not complied with either.
There are no new gates.
The area remains closed when not in use.
If you wish to know more details then please read on. Equally, if you feel its about time the gates were installed and open when not in use then do please take a moment to write to your MP and ask two questions:
Where are the promised additional gates?
Why do the gates at Long Valley remain locked when its not in use?
As ever, the easiest way to contact your MP is to use the Write to Them website.
It’s painfully obvious to anyone using Long Valley the current number and location of gates is inadequate. This map shows us why:
With no gates to the north and just one gate serving the west access here requires climbing the fence or, as indicated by damage, cutting a hole in the wire. The southern side has just two gates with the fence blocking routes in use for decades.
TAG have pressed for more gates, in part to reduce the ongoing spend of public money maintaining the fence as casual access is reasserted but mainly to help those less able access the area for recreation.
Regrettably the proposals have been been disregarded by DIO with a simple “too close to dangerous roads” statement. This claim overlooks the fact all gates are near a road and all locations are set back from the kerb…We are deep into the territory of where policy and decision making is driven by ego rather than evidence, something that fails to meet the standards in public life.
How do we know DIO have no intention to install more gates? Back in July we raised an FOI asking to see works orders for gate installation.
It was little surprise to find there was none.
But hang on, didn’t the MP’s letter say work had already started?
Either politicians are simply telling us something we want to hear hoping we will go away and forget about the gates…or DIO have failed to act. With a track record of failing to deliver we err on the side of DIO inaction.
Back in July 2020 the Minister for Defence Procurement wrote a letter that contained the following statement:
I can assure you that officials have been directed to ensure the existing gates are open for public access to Long Valley when it is not in use for military training.
We now know DIO staff have ignored the minister and failed to comply with this directive.
The gates have remained locked for extended periods when there is no training underway. We can be very confident of this as its based on DIO’s own booking on and off records. Every formal user of the lands must do this when they arrive and leave. Here’s the analysis of the Long Valley records from September 2020 to February 2021:
Booking on/off recorded duration vs published closure dates & times taken from DIO’s own records
The number of hours used seems incredibly low, but this is very much backed up by casual observation of what is – or is not – going on in Long Valley.
Photographs such as the above provide excellent evidence of the current activity at Long Valley. TAG are maintaining an audit and with the news troop numbers set to fall, or head off to Germany, we are not expecting a rise in use anytime soon. If you can contribute with photos and observations then do please get in touch.
We are unable to analyse the booking on/off records beyond February. DIO realised what TAG were up to and subsequent FIO have not yielded any meaningful information. We now firmly believe DIO staff are deliberately concealing the truth about just how little Long Valley is used.
The £250,000 spend of public money on the fence really isn’t looking good value, is it?
DIO staff – specifically those tasked with public access – have a lot to answer for here and action to restore access is well overdue.
Verification and Trust
Some DIO staff include a guiding principles statement of “My Word is my Bond; Trust but Verify” in their email signature. Having consistently failed to verify TAG struggle to trust what DIO say. This applies to both the corporate and individual levels and the bond value of the words is more rather than less likely to be graded a junk asset and worthless.
Politicians need to get a grip and start actively managing DIO and ensure their instructions and commitments are complied with. Gates must remain unlocked when not in use and the additional access points installed as a priority.
Locked gates and no training represents lost opportunity we can never get back. Time has passed and the space remained inaccessible and the status quo must not continue.
Those responsible for access must be held accountable for the loss of recreational opportunity, and to ensure the Access part of the public office held is recognised with deeds and actions, and without further delay.
At time of writing neither council had received a response from Mr Dalton.
But before we look into that, a quick reminder of some of the issues, and DIO’s spend to “fix” them.
The Power to Spend
DIO display a special level of contempt for elected officials and the communities they find themselves dealing with. A case in point is the matter of additional gates at Long Valley, and ensuring the space is open for recreation when not in use. Local residents have received written assurances of both but DIO simply refuse to act.
When the fence was built DIO were assuring everyone it was for public safety. The bill for fencing now runs close to £250,000 and we know the lands are empty more often than not with DIO’s own records showing February 2021 was used just 34 hours of a total of 320.
A quarter of a million pounds have been spent on fences to protect us from danger that simply does not exist for most of the time. When in use, typically its one single vehicle making a lot of noise driving slowly around the test track, or parked up at Eelmoor. The vehicles are easy to see and – most important – avoid.
We struggle to understand how the fence can be described as good value for the taxpayer, nor can DIO demonstrate adherence to their own written statements, yet political directives to deliver remain ignored.
But its not an isolated waste…at Ash Ranges DIO have spent close to £50,000 on a path that no one wants or needs whilst the claims of risk are centred around the visually impaired or illiterate being unable to understand signs and that they might hurt themselves if they fall down a hole.
Or maybe its COVID fault.
But then blaming the local community for vandalism seems reasonable in DIO’s eyes.
The messages for closure at Ash have been consistently confusing and mixed, but ultimately we believe is founded on zero evidence. Such is the risk aversion at DIO…it’s bordering on paranoia rather than a rational, evidence-lead approach. This in itself breaches standards in public life…whilst remembering the costs of vandalism at Ash Ranges could not be disseminated because the estimates were privy only to those with “…corporate knowledge of such events…”.
Our view: DIO are bleeding our cash in an attempt to fix issues that have no evidence base supporting their claims whilst ignoring what collaboration with the local community could deliver.
We are not alone in this view. The Public Accounts Committee agree and although the numbers are much bigger and are dealing with land disposal (housing estate anyone?) statements such as this are eye catching:
...the Department wastes resources that could support frontline personnel and develop new military capabilities.
Its difficult to disagree. The PCC are clear – DIO waste our money.
…adept at aligning wider stakeholder interests with core business objectives.
Just how does this statement fit with Mr Dalton’s failure to respond to both Hart and Guildford Councils?
There are perhaps a couple of possible explanations:
Mr Dalton does not see the local community, and specifically their elected representatives, as stakeholders.
Mr Dalton is more adept at personal, positive PR than delivery of engagement.
Thanks to a massive response to the Byelaws Review survey we know the lands account for at least 59,000 hours of recreation a week. The Aldershot Byelaws, whilst not unique, are rare and Section 2 grants recreational access at all times when not in use for military training. If this does not make the local community very significant stakeholders then what would?
This ability to ignore does not come as a surprise to us.
DIO SE, and in particular Mark Ludlow (DIO SE Security and Access) and Lt Col Dickie Bishop, have a track record of ignoring the local community and we have Parlimentary Ombudsman complaints seeking answers.
Either way and for whatever reason, the fact Mr Dalton can apparently ignore elected representatives indicates the internal levels of distain and contempt for politicians and the ethos runs right to the very top of DIO.
The Power of Us
TAG know many of the community has raised their voices and concerns. Public voices helps keep the issues DIO SE trigger in sharp focus. DIO must be held to account for their decisions and be compelled to uphold the standards in public life.
From whatever angle, failing to respond to not one but two Council letters cannot be seen as meeting the minimum expectations. TAG have written to the local MP Ranil Jayawardena, pressing Jeremy Quin MP for some answers; seeking responses from Mr Dalton whilst pressing the issue of why DIO are empowered to ignore everyone – politicians and communities alike – and what is being done to change this completely unacceptable behavior.
If you find a lack of positive engagement from DIO disturbing, and the idea of unelected civil servants remaining unaccountable and enabled to ignore instructions, then do please take a moment to contact your MP:
At time of writing both Councils have written again to Mr Dalton with follow-up letters and emails. This is something that should have been unnecessary, and another good example of how DIO waste public time and money.
We will publish Mr Dalton’s reply – if one is every forthcoming – in due course.
We do appreciate feedback from the MTB community on what is happening on the military lands – and in particular we really like to hear of any encounters with DIO’s Training Area Safety Marshals (TSM).
So we were delighted to hear of one positive outcome, when a TSM lent a mountain biker a tool to fix their bike and helped continue the ride.
This is the kind of collaboration and cooperation that makes the world a better place and we need more, not less, of it.
Regrettably its still too early to pop the champagne and celebrate a new, positive and engaged DIO.
After fixing the bicycle the TSM and rider had a friendly chat.
Sadly we do not have a recording (and we do encourage this) but the rider did share the gist of what was said. So we are going to pick apart and examine in more detail some of the statements the TSM made.
What follows is a breakdown of the issues and concerns with the TSM’s view:
Cycling is banned and MOD Police can fine you and sieze your bike
Both of these statements fail to recognise the 2019 agreement between DIO and TAG that legitimised cycling on the military lands – you can read it here. In the current byelaws DIO can issue a Section 8.3 authorisation permitting anything that is listed as illegal, and there is precedence for DIO doing exactly that when Mark Ludlow (DIO SE Security and Access) issued Farnham Ramblers with permission to walk in groups.
The original copy has been removed from the Ramblers website…but we kept a copy and you can read how Ramblers were given the green light by Mark Ludlow in 2014:
The 2014 date is significant – remember how DIO set about banning MTB at the same time?
There are plenty of nagging questions; Why does DIO refuse to acknowledge the 2019 agreement with cyclists? Why are TSMs still repeating out of date information? And why were the Ramblers able to secure permission and MTB not?
Mark Ludlow cannot deny such an agreement was made…as it was discussed with the Chair of TAG in his Longmoor office…then followed up with emails and subsequent publication. At no time have DIO sought to amend or revoke the agreement, so as far as TAG is concerned the deal stands.
Short answer is we don’t know why TSMs are failing to recognise the agreement but the working presumption is Mark Ludlow has failed to inform TSMs, or simply refuses to offer the same courtesy extended to Ramblers and recognise the agreement is very much valid.
On this point we consider it a failure of standards in public life to not acknowledge something that patently exists and have an active Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint against DIO and Mark Ludlow seeking formal, written recognition of the agreement for cyclists and securing legal certainty for all.
Cyclist must stick to the fire roads as cycling on single track is inherently dangerous and MOD will be sued by anyone hurting themselves.
Firstly, DIO had full sight of the published 2019 agreement, yet restrictions as to where cyclists were permitted to ride was not included, nor amendment(s) sought. As far as TAG are concerned single track is the place to ride and is more often multi-use and shared with walkers, who suffer no such restrictions.
Secondly, there is no evidence we are aware of that suggests single track is more dangerous than the fire roads. Indeed, there is a good argument to use single track as it avoids meeting vehicles, particularly in places like Long Valley.
As for MOD being subject to personal injury litigation by an MTB rider…this is utter nonsense. MOD are being sued by cyclists…but slippery roads, traffic barriers and wheelie bins were all cited as primary causes and military bases are the typical location.
No one, in spite of the thousands of hours ridden, has sued MOD for injury on Aldershot single track…we have collectively and individually “opted in” to the risks it might pose to take massive benefit from the joy riding the trails brings. To put it simply, single track is worth it.
For failing to use objective evidence to advise policy we have evidence of another failure by DIO to uphold standards in public life.
Hopefully in the future when the new bylaws are put in place it will allow cyclists to ride the fire roads
The 2019 agreement between TAG and DIO already permits greater use than just the fire roads, so a new set of byelaws that restrict us will be doomed to fail.
TAG oppose the idea of “fire roads only” on the simple grounds it will permit DIO to maintain a negative approach to cycling – there is a hard, embedded culture that will ignore (and has ignored) the byelaws and continue to use the single track.
All TAG seeks is parity with walkers and what they enjoy today – the freedom to roam – and nothing less will be as much unreasonable as unenforceable. To achieve parity with walkers will do nothing other than formalise how the lands are ridden today, nothing more and nothing less. There will be no mass MTB rampages through the heather or other senstive areas…things will just carry on as we use the existing network of routes, but we all get DIO and their massive risk adversion culture off our collective backs.
Persisting with restrictions on cyclists will empower DIO to maintain marginalisation. When set in the context of their overwhelming desire to fence in areas and permanently exclude everyone, it’s easy to see how DIO will use MTB as the excuse – blame the MTB community for riding off the fire roads and stick up more barbed wire topped deterrent fences. For evidence we need look no further than DIO’s willingness to apply collective punishment at Ash Ranges and use any and all means to fabricate justification to support subjective policy.
For these reasons TAG are calling for byelaws fit for purpose whereby recreational access is protected from the excesses of an unaccounable DIO.
DIO would be interested to know if an area could be used by MTB [for digging]
Of all the issues raised, this is perhaps most galling.
Back in 2019 Mark Ludlow solicited a report from TAG looking into the feasibility of having an area set aside for trail construction.
TAG volunteers duly met with a few diggers, scoped the suggested areas and worked up a plan into how we could work together. The report was authored and duly delivered to Mark Ludlow.
To date the report has neither been acknowledged nor responded to.
Therefore the answer is already on Mark Ludlow’s desk, yet two years later DIO are still asking the same questions.
Why would this be? Are DIO really interested in working on this?
TAG believe we are deep into egocentric decision making territory and bad faith engagement…to that end we have an active Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint against Mark Ludlow for failing to respond to the solicited report.
DIO are getting a lot of negative press…could you do a positive post on social media?
We would not consider for one minute holding DIO and its staff to account as negative press but see it as a civic duty to act, to hold public office holders to account for their actions, see unwelcome behaviour corrected and ensure civil servants meet the expectations of standards in public life.
One sad aspect of this encounter is the TSM thought it necessary to ask for a positive post. It highlights the depths DIO have reached in their standing with the local community, and a simple act of helping someone in distress must not become transactional, as good deeds are exchanged for a good news story.
A desire to help others at times of need is part of what makes us human, and is not something to be traded. That aside, we do really (like really, really) appreciate the efforts of the TSM and recognise the issues we all face are generated by the leadership and daft policy, not always the people at the sharp end.
If DIO really do need some positive PR then TAG can quickly act. Implementing the following changes will deliver DIO good news stories by the spadeful:
Stop using DANGER signs to tell lies and comply with the Ministerial directive to keep Long Valley open when not in use.
Issue a formal notice under Section 8.3 confirming cyclists may use the lands and ensure TSMs are fully aware of its existence.
Work with TAG to implement the digging proposals.
Develop with TAG a long-term educational plan that helps civvies understand military training
Ensure Porridge Pots is accessible and add a gate at the northern boundary ensuring the strategic north/south route is restored in full.
Implementing the above could potentially negate the requirement to persue the Parlimentary Ombudsman complaints to their conclusion.
Above all, DIO must recognise there is a society and community that has deep involvement, respect and passion for the lands, and to start to work with them to make the world a better place. Furthermore, the almost unique and highly valued Section 2 of the byelaws – recreational access to all areas at all times when not in use – must become embedded thinking within DIO SE.
Then positive PR will not really be required…it will just be positive all round.
Until then, restoring long term trust in DIO will require a lot more than a fleeting glimpse of positive social media PR.
In March 2020 DIO blamed COVID and locked the gates to 340 acres of land at Ash Ranges.
Fast forward to the present and the gates remain locked, except this time DIO have made it clear they are blaming local residents – a letter from Jeremy Quin MP (Minister for Defence Procurement) has been shared by Michael Gove MP informing us vandalism was costing too much.
Instead of punishing the guilty and going after the criminals DIO have elected to impose collective punishment on an otherwise supportive community…a community that were being thanked by MOD Police for their work in a warden scheme.
Yes, you read that correctly.
There might just be a good reason the vandalism was historically lower:
In 2009 MOD Police were writing to local residents thanking them for helping reduce vandalism costs.
Nowadays local residents are more likely to be threatened with arrest or invited to the local police station for an under caution interview, such are the depths DIO have reached in managing community relations.
Disaster? Incompetent? Obstinate? Guilty as charged.
Flash the Taxpayer Cash
It’s easy to look at the headline figures in Quin’s letter, blame residents for breaking things and move on.
Except the figures do not tell the whole story and two sets of costs have been ignored.
Firstly, the quoted figures do not include the spend of £48,166.08 on upgrading the perimeter path. According to DIO this linear path is supposed to compensate for the loss of 340 acres of space and 10 miles of informal tracks and paths.
The path is now flooding and is reverting to a boggy mess while a perfectly good all weather track lies just inside the fence. The spend on maintenance is likely to be ongoing and the locals do not for one minute think the path a fair swap for 340 acres.
Secondly, the DIO figures lack any assessment of the value of outdoor recreation.
Being outdoors and taking exercise is proven to improve both physical and mental health and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport recognise there is a hard cash saving on NHS and GP services. The benefits of a healthy community – something the government is keen to promote – and reduced costs of healthcare are ignored by DIO…or maybe they just missed the memo?
Either way DIO do not measure value, focusing solely cost – we know this because no impact assessment was prepared ahead of closing off Ash Ranges. So whilst DIO will claim a gain and saving, wider society will pay more as the demand for healthcare heads upwards and the final bill is met by the NHS.
DIO can find the cash to upgrade a path and spend nearly £50k in an attempt to placate the community…but no consultation established if a path was needed or wanted. Even when historical evidence supplied by no less than MOD Police exists to demonstrate a warden scheme could work for all do DIO step back and engage?
No, not at all.
For some reason…We are reminded of the classic Blackadder quote:
If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.
Jeremy Quin kept his job during the recent reshuffle. We see this as a good thing; we have a Minister who finally recognises the strength of feeling:
“I can assure you that I am very aware of the strength of opinion and the desire of local residents and the Army to maintain what is a long and very positive neighbourly relationship”
But on the other hand we are faced with precisely zero action from Jeremy when it comes to accountability. DIO are enabled and empowered to persist with a policy of ignoring the Ministerial directive to keep Long Valley open when not in use, and failing to install the promised gates. Good neighbours do not act like an entire community is irrelevant, do they?
So we have a Minister who claims to understand a community and the passion we hold for the lands, but singularly and simultaneously fails to hold Mark Ludlow (DIO SE Security and Access) to account and ensure written commitments are delivered on the ground.
None of this bodes well for a set of byelaws that are fit for purpose, preserving and protecting recreational access. With closed car parks, locked gates and barbed wire topped deterrent fences the signals from DIO are clear; recreational users are unwelcome irrespective of the lands being in use.
The lack of accountability from Ministers may well result in a new set of byelaws that suit DIO perfectly with casual recreation reduced to when they can be bothered to unlock gates. So far Ministers have failed to ensure DIO comply with basics, so what chances do we have with a new legal framework?
Finally, we do not agree with the Minister when he claims:
While in the circumstances it is very hard to mitigate the issues raised around the TA [Closed area] closure…
This is classic over-thinking of a “problem”. The answer to reducing vandalism costs can be quickly resolved by instructing DIO to engage with the local community, reinstate access and start working together.
We know this works – MOD Police letter speaks for itself. This would be a win-win as mental and physical health benefits, reduce direct criminal costs and strengthen goodwill and collaboration between the army and civvies.
After reading this you feel pressing the Minister for some accountability and ensure DIO follow instruction and reinstate access to Ash Ranges then do please raise the matter with your local MP using this link:
Allowing DIO to carry on regardless – as if the community does not exist – may have more long-term consequences than DIO can imagine. Damage to the relationships, loss of goodwill and cooperation will undoubtely escalte if left unchecked.
In the meantime, we have raised the issues of DIO behaviour again with local MPs and we will report back shortly when a response is received.
The gates remain wishful thinking and the concept of “in use” is broadly ignored.
We believe now is the time to call the DIO to account and would encourage you to write to your local MP and ask:
Why are DIO are permitted to act as if the local community does not exist?
Why political accountability with respect to DIO SE staff decisions and (in)actions appears to be weak or non-existent?
Why are direct instructions such as “install gates” and “keep it open when not in use” are casually ignored?
Where are the promised gates?
Why is Long Valley shut when not in use?
If this has piqued your interest, please read on.
Where are the gates?
Currently there are just six pedestrian gates permitting access and they are poorly distributed with three on the eastern side, two along the southern boundary and just one in the west. The north west and north sides have zero access and there is a 5km off-road detour from one gate to the next.
When Ranil’s letter arrived, we wanted to believe the commitments but going on past DIO performance of ignoring anything they didn’t want to do we held off starting the celebrations.
All points where gates are needed are popular. They have become subject to “restorative access measures” (we refuse to call it vandalism) as the community assert the promised access. Fitting gates would reduce long-term maintenance and repair and restore access.
After 4 months and no sign of activity we decided it was time to close the loop and find out what planning work had been done so we submitted a Freedom of Information Request – you can read it and the response here.
The short answer is no statement of need, no contractor engagement or indeed any sign of work on gates has commenced – DIO hold no information on the matter. Contrary to assurances nothing has happened and the gates remain elusive.
This has all the hallmarks of DIO ignoring a direct political commitment again. Their track record on this behaviour is thoroughly disappointing.
Where is the Access?
Dating back to 2018 the local community has sought and received assurances Long Valley will remain open for recreation when not in use.
Since then DIO have consistently ignored political commitments, including a direct instruction from the Minister for Defence Procurement himself (letter dated July 2020), and have carried on blocking access irrespective of use.
All of the access issues are documented here and here. The persistent closure is not supported by the intent and purpose of Section 2 of the Byelaws and DIO remain unaccountable for their actions.
The warning signs continue to convey worthless information for most of the time and from the booking on/off records between September 2020 and January 2021 we know the lands remained empty for extended periods, or just a tiny fraction of the 960 acres was occupied for part of the time. Of the 320 hours of locked gates during February just 34 hours were booked out and in use.
The signs do not convey accurate information for the majority of the time and have failed the basic standards we should expect.
Who are the Instructed Officials?
DIO is an official body, but it is individuals who represent it take the decisions – and ignore the instructions – that impacts all of us.
So we think it’s time those who spent £250,000 of taxpayer money preventing access at Long Valley are named. Of all the DIO staff involved there are two whom we believe to be directly responsible;
Mark Ludlow – Training and Safety Officer (Security and Access)
Lt Col Dickie Bishop – Commander, South East Training Estate
These two individuals have track record of seeking to exclude recreation – closing car parks, removing access at Ash Ranges, installing deterrent fences – we firmly believe both Mark and Dickie find the idea of recreational access very difficult to accept in practice or principle, despite what the Byelaws say. Their actions suggest their intent is to make access (the “Access” part Mr Ludlow’s job title) or as difficult as possible, even when the lands are empty.
If you have read this far, we would encourage you to write to your local MP and ask the questions we posed at the top of this article.
Who are the Fools?
What is regrettable is how a local community – one that cares passionately about the lands – is held at arm’s length at best and ignored at worst. How DIO have behaved over the closure of Ash Ranges is a perfect example of how not to “engage” with the community yet accountability remains absent.
DIO prevent access without good reason whilst failing to balance the positive outcomes recreational use brings with a minimal risk. Mental and physical health is improved with recreational access, with a positive reduction in demand for NHS & GP appointments coupled with the simple joy of living in a happier, healthier community.
This is not something TAG are making up – the government acknowledge, and numerous scientific reports agree recreation in open space is a very good thing with positive impact on high demand health issues such as obesity, diabetes, depression. These very issues that impact all of us fail to register in DIO for we know Ash Ranges was closed without any consideration or care.
So whilst the date of Ranil’s letter is likely to be coincidental its very clear who the fools are in this game. Unless and until DIO are held to account the local community will remain ignored and treated as fools.
At times DIO can appear benign and at times charming, acting as if we are welcome to use the lands. The recent “Respect the Ranges” video even goes as far to spell it out:
“We very much welcome the public coming to use the estate but at the right time and when it’s safe for them.”
As we will see, the tricky bits for DIO are twofold. Firstly, accepting Aldershot Byelaws and Section 2 exists and is (nearly) unique with the wide ranging casual recreational access it grants appears difficult. Secondly, figuring out a rational and objective definition of “safe” does appear to be a challenge.
Yet even with a broad statement here in the South East the concept of “welcome” remains elusive. TAG have now raised and escalated a complaint regarding the approach and attitude of the Training Area Safety Marshals (TSM).
We have recent reports from dog walkers and mountain bikers documenting an overtly hostile attitude that ignores the cycling agreement, does not respect the byelaws and is making it clear DIO would rather see recreation removed. One TSM went as far as expressing a desire to fence the entire area and ban recreation at all times.
Just how welcome are we?
Isolated Incidents? Or Pattern of Behaviour?
Regrettably its not the first time TAG have raised concerns.
Many will be unaware of an incident back in 2019 at Beacon Hill when a DIO representative decided it was appropriate and acceptable to shout foul and abusive language at children. To their credit DIO acted upon that complaint and one of the positive outcomes was the 2019 agreement that cyclist were to be welcomed (see the Facebook post).
However, since early 2020 a steady stream of complaints has been reported into TAG, each telling riders they can only use the fire roads and a dog walker was advised the area was dangerous because there were trip hazards. At no time was military training underway…its very much a “get off our land” approach that really does ignore the principles of Section 2 of the Byelaws.
We see all of this as a softening up of the public ahead of the byelaws consultation, encouraging all of us to accept restrictions before the new laws actually apply. But without hard evidence things remain a they-said-I-said argument and the issues triggered remain unresolved.
What was needed was some hard and verifiable evidence.
We now have a 14 minute recording of an exchange between a mountain biker and a TSM.
You can have a read of the conversation highlights and analysis here:
There were so many misguided, inaccurate and just plain wrong assertions – up to and including threatening arrest – that its clear to us that DIO and their staff are relying on ignorance and bluster to encourage compliance to non-existent sections of existing or yet-to-be consulted on byelaws.
TAG have an in-progress complaint intending to address this but in the meantime we have put together a little guide to help.
A Guide to Reality
What follows is a layman’s guide to help anyone who is stopped to help counter the TSM & DIO view of reality. The comments are all based on quotes or feedback.
Anyone in uniform can enforce the byelaws.
This really depends on who is wearing the uniform. Lets look at who can:
A serving officer or NCO.
MOD or civil police.
Anyone authorised in writing General Officer Commanding, Army District or Officer in Charge of Military Lands.
So a TSM (who is a civilian) must possess and be able to produce written authority. Anyone lacking authority is unable to enforce the byelaws.
However, there is some doubt over the existence of the roles mentioned in the byelaws, and a later piece of law (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) may have removed the powers of arrest from individuals such as a TSM entirely (Update: we have two contradictory FOI responses, one saying both roles are defunct and a later one saying one is active…we are checking…).
February 6th 2022 – Update added following legal advice:
The Serious and Organised Crime Act of 2007 has likely removed the power of arrest from TSMs or indeed anyone else authorised in writing by the Commanding Officer.
It has not been tested in court, but legal counsel’s view is that it would be a very, very brave individual who is not MOD police or a serving officer or NCO to attempt an arrest under the current byelaws.
Either way, if you are stopped the TSM should be able to produce written authority to let the conversation proceed and asking to see copy is a perfectly reasonable request.
If you are stopped by the army then it will be for good reason(s). Military training takes priority and following their instruction is part of being a responsible user of the lands and everyone should follow the code of conduct. This includes making sure troops have priority and space to train.
Cycling is only permitted on the fire roads.
This contradicts the 2019 agreement between TAG and DIO that makes it clear cycling is permitted on the military lands when they are not in use. There was and remains no mention of any requirement to stick to the fire roads. TAG have never been requested to remove or alter the agreed and published statement and our challenge to DIO over this remains unanswered.
Until TAG are advised otherwise (and we will need an evidence-backed reason(s) to support such a change) we very much see the agreement to cycle as written authority under Section 8(3) of the byelaws and in effect granting cyclists access parity with walkers.
If presented with the “fire roads only” assertion then politely remind the TSM of the 2019 agreement and ask them if they have been informed of its existence. From a limited sample of people who have pointed out the agreement with cyclists it seems unlikely the TSMs have been updated by the leadership.
Perhaps the strongest evidence refuting DIO’s assertion we all need to stick to made up tracks is highlighted in the Respect the Range video – the mountain biker is seen enjoying the space but at no time is seen riding on a fire road.
This area is closed for your safety.
On the face of it this sounds very benevolent and almost caring.
The reality is more about DIO running scared of being sued (spoiler alert – no evidence of it happening here) rather than caring about safety.
If there is genuine risk triggered by military training then the statement is valid. But when the lands are empty the space is about as benign as possible. The the risk of harm – even falling down holes – is near zero and for the likes of MTB accepting the risk is part of the reason we ride…the mental and physical challenges posed deliver benefits far in excess of any downside.
It may seem unbelievable but falling down a hole has been given as good reason to close access to 340 acres at Ash Ranges. The holes in question are a) tiny and b) marked with a warning signs. The risks are mitigated but DIO reality means they remain a concern, particularly those who “cannot read”. For those who genuinely cannot read the text is accompanied with a graphic…no, we are not making this claim up.
February 6th 2022 – Update added following a Freedom of Information Request:
In five years just one member of the public has launched a civil claim for damages whilst using the Aldershot lands. The individual in question did indeed fall down a hole when a manhole cover collapsed. Set against 59,000 hours of recreation per week we maintain the area is as safe as practically possible and any DIO claim to the contrary is not based on sound evidence.
Its not just holes that trigger concern for our well being. Trip hazards – tree roots – have been cited as why DIO don’t like people taking recreation on the lands. Ash residents were quick to point out the canal lacks any warning sign…and people are encouraged to walk alongside it…
Should a TSM claim “Heath and Safety” then remind them that only applies to those at work and not to anyone using the lands for recreation, and there is no provision in the byelaws to prevent access on the grounds of public safety – only the presence of military training can justify closure.
My boss said “appetite to risk” has changed. Its above my level. I’m just doing my job.
From a TSM perspective the statement is factually correct and feels like a get-out-of-jail-free card, blaming someone else who isn’t there for the situation.
However, we have yet to see evidence of any waiver available to a TSM (or indeed anyone at DIO) that excuses them from adhering to the Seven Principles of Public Life.
Or in other words, it does not really matter if the boss asks you to work outside what the the byelaws say or to ignore things such as the 2019 cycling agreement. Failing to uphold standards is an individual matter as much a corporate responsibility.
Col Cook is on record of saying DIO’s “appetite to risk” had changed but to date the statement has not been backed up with evidence and to this day remains outside of standards of accountability, objectivity, transparency, trust and ultimately, leadership.
Blaming the chain of command does not absolve anyone and TSMs must uphold the minimum expected standards of public life.
The MOD/DIO grants permissive access.
We can deal with this one really quickly. The MOD/DIO does not grant permissive access.
Section 2 of the byelaws – a law that is ultimately enabled by Parliament – grants recreational access to all areas the Aldershot lands and at all times unless it’s in use for military training.
The anti-social elements who [leave dog mess/ride bikes/start fires etc] will mean MOD will permanently remove access.
With 59,000 hours of successful recreation per week* the vast majority of visits leave zero trace, whilst at the same time the byelaws (plus others) contain the means to punish the guilty.
Closing access on the actions of an absolute tiny minority would fail any rational test of objectivity – one of the principles of public life and office – and applying collective punishment would be considered unacceptable.
Whilst the threat sounds very real, in reality a more balanced, objective and rational view would be expected and required.
This area is closed off. We told you its closed off.
Currently three areas are closed off, either permanently or part time; Ash Ranges complex (permanent but widely ignored by locals), Long Valley (part time but restrictions widely ignored) and Porridge Pots/Deepcut (as per Long Valley).
If stopped in these areas the TSM may start to assert the area is closed and no one can be there. We are now dealing with the most contentious issue; what powers do DIO possess to close access even when the lands are empty and not in use?
Can DIO close areas because they want to? For health and safety? To stop vandalism?
The short answer we think is “None whatsoever” and only the persistent presence of military – like Gibraltar or Keogh Barracks – dictates and permits public exclusion on a 24/7 basis.
However, DIO maintain they can close an area offwhenever they like and for whatever reason.
We believe none of this meets the purpose and intent of Section 2 of the byelaws, nor meets minimum public standards for objectivity, transparency, accountability or truth.
When pressed not even the Minister for Procurement (Jeremy Quin MP) could offer sound legal opinion that clearly demonstrated DIO had the powers to restrict access at all times irrespective of use.
If military training is genuinely underway (again, note date/time/location – we can validate any claim) then you must leave the soldiers alone. If the lands are empty then there remains a big question mark over the TSM’s powers and DIO’s interpretation.
Our friends at Save Our Spaces are fundraising with the intent getting legally qualified advice on this point – please chip in and support their fundraiser if you can as any view will apply beyond the boundaries of Ash Ranges.
It’s MOD land and we can do what we want with it.
We can only give half marks for this statement.
Yes, its MOD land but the space comes under an Act of Parliament (1892 Military Lands Act) and a set of Byelaws. MOD are beholden to the law as much as we are and Section 2 exists as much to permit recreational access as to preserve it. Therefore DIO are expected to uphold and respect access at all times when not in use and they cannot do what they want with it.
Gather The Evidence
If there is a genuine need to intervene no one will ever object to a TSM doing their job. They are there to help troops train and if that means stopping recreational users from interfering in an exercise then we can and must do we can to support that.
So we fully respect TSMs have a job to do and we ask that everyone affords them the utmost courtesy as they go about their work on the lands.
However we cannot support intervention when none is necessary, particularly when accompanied by any low level hostility towards recreational users. Nor can we support TSMs – or indeed anyone at DIO – who is unable to meet the basic principles of standards in public life. Nor can we accept a draconian “hostile environment” interpretation of Section 2 of the byelaws and DIO’s attempts at preventing us accessing the lands even when empty.
The recording has proved a rich source of evidence and enabled us to directly challenge the belief system that perpetuates within DIO. The more examples of these we have the better as we think it will demonstrate the issues go beyond the individual level and deeper into a culture that refuses to respect Section 2 of the byelaws, or is acting on a desire to bring the Aldershot areas into line with the rest of the MOD estate.
It may come as a surprise but Section 2 of the Aldershot byelaws is just one of two examples from the hundred or so military byelaws and its presence is perhaps seen as a massive inconvenience and loss of control for an organisation used to dealing in and very much preferring…control.
To be clear; we believe bringing Aldershot in to line with the rest of the MOD estate will prevent casual recreation at all times irrespective of being in use. The lands could be closed at a whim or when the risk appetite changes and access will be prevented at all times and the current approach is risk adverse in the extreme whilst lacking any balance that recognises the physical and mental health benefits access delivers to the community.
Back in May last year TAG called for protection of access to feature in the new byelaws for this very reason.
So, if you can and are comfortable with recording please preserve any encounters with TSMs. Easily identified, they will typically be dressed in combat fatigues, wear a high-vis jacket and drive a distinctive white pickup with red bonnet and doors. They should not be confused with Landmarc staff, who are an altogether more engaging and friendly bunch.
It is highly unlikely TSMs will appreciate being recorded and may start to raise objections.
To counter any insistence the recording stops, the following guidelines should apply:
You do not have to tell anyone you are recording
We believe there is a very strong defence of “public interest” for recording and subsequent publication
TSMs carry body cameras – their actual use appears to be infrequent – and filming is not their exclusive right
If a TSM records you then the material can be requested under a Subject Access Request
There is no provision in the byelaws to prevent filming or recording
The evidence gathered is irrefutable – no one can argue over what was said
If you do happen to record an encounter we would love to hear from you – do please get in touch using our Facebook page.
We would rather see a community working in collaboration with DIO, working together to achieve the common goals of making sure the military lands can support the training needs of a modern army whilst at the same time enabling casual recreational access at all times when not in use.
There is much we could do…and should do. The “Be like Pete” litter pick on Caesars Camp shifted 10 bags of rubbish off the lands and is just one example where we can all do our bit. There is a lot we could do with education on everything from why the wildlife is special to making sure everyone knows its a minimum distance of 100m between soldiers using pyrotechnics and a civilian.
The potential is there and remains both untapped and massive. The passion the community feels for the space is a latent force – a causal read of the Recreational Users Survey should make that clear – but remains formally unrecognised.
For now collaboration remains elusive and our political leaders seem unwilling or unable to issue enabling direction to DIO. When direction is clear DIO remain at liberty to ignore it.
It can be difficult to remain optimistic at times.
Since 2018 three areas of the Aldershot lands have been permanently fenced. In the extreme access to Ash Ranges was removed entirely, alienating the local community who continue to press for access to be restored.
The other areas subject to fencing are Long Valley (known as B4) and Porridge Pots (G2). From the initial Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) in 2018 that exposed the plans to fence the complaints stacked up. Political assurances were duly issued making it clear recreational access would continue when not in use.
Except that didn’t happen.
DIO shut the area off and then kept it closed 24/7 contrary to the intent of Section 2 of the byelaws and ignoring political assurances. DIO have now spent close to £250,000 of taxpayer cash at Long Valley alone trying their utmost to make recreation as difficult as possible.
It took 18 months of regular audit, political pressure and creative thinking by TAG to compel DIO to meet bare minimum standards.
In 2020 access problems deteriorated with more fencing – extending to 5kms of barbed wire topped deterrent fence with no gates – triggering more complaints.
In the end the Minister for Defence Procurement (Jeremy Quin MP) issued a ministerial directive in July 2020 instructing DIO to maintain recreational access when not in use.
This statement has been repeated as recently as March 2021 in letters sent by the local MP Ranil Jayawardena.
Yet still problems persist, and whilst we say “DIO” a lot the root of the issues boils down to people who make decisions that impact the community.
We believe the individual responsible for making sure the gates are locked even if there is nothing or very little going on is Mark Ludlow (Training Safety Officer – Security and Access) and his boss, Lt Col Dickie Bishop (Commander, South East Training Estate). From the closure at Ash Ranges we know impact to the local community does not factor into their decision making and are maintaining a hostile environment towards recreation.
Since late last year TAG have been aware of extended periods of zero or very minimal use at Long Valley with the gates remaining locked. We are also aware of similar issues at Porridge Pots with gates left locked and zero training underway…not for an odd hour but for days at a time.
So we raised another Freedom of Information request asking for the booking on/off records for several areas for the month of February; Porridge Pots, Long Valley, Caesars Camp and Beacon Hill.
If you are not into stats then we can summarise it right now:
Long Valley was closed for 326 hours but in use for just 34hrs 20mins.
On one day Long Valley was used for 2hrs 19mins but the gates remained locked for 24hrs
Porridge Pots saw 5 days of locked gates and no activity
Caesars Camp and Beacon Hill saw more booking on/off activity than Long Valley
Before we go any further, a quick reminder;
No one is objecting to military training. The army get absolute priority and the need to train is recognised. It remains our collective and individual responsibility to give troops space to train.
Equally, no one is objecting to flexibility of training and recognise things change and often at short notice. But we also recognise locked gates and empty spaces prevent recreational users from being flexible and “going the other way” when training is underway in unfenced areas.
We can all follow signs and instructions if there is trust in what we are being told…we really wanted a system of safety to work for all but in reality the notices regularly cry wolf and trust is now zero…no one likes being lied to and thats exactly what the signs are doing.
We also have some deeper concerns seeing an organisation such as DIO wilfully ignoring not only a ministerial directive but actively working against the principles and intent of the byelaws. How can civil servants such as Mark Ludlow ignore a clear instruction? Remember, this isn’t a one-off event but a pattern of behaviour lasting nearly 3 years. It’s a persistent problem.
A Deeper Look
If you want to know more and see for yourself, you can download and review our analysis of Long Valley use in February here:
The fenced area at Long Valley covers close to 1000 acres and has roughly 48kms of trails running through it, not counting the main vehicle test tracks. Yet we see only a fraction of the area in use – typically the Eelmoor road loop – triggering gate closure.
Eelmoor accounts for just 4% of the total area and is over a mile from the gates on the western side. Only a few trails exit onto the tarmac and the space is easy to avoid. On that basis the closure of the entire area based on a tiny fraction of usage is hardly proportionate.
The reference to “Chainsaw Training” is – we believe – not correct but if it were the risk assessment insisting on 1000 acres of space must be a massive overkill. We have our suspicions about what “Chainsaw Training” actually means, but if you happen to have seen any on the dates in question…do please get in touch and let us know..
We do know DIO are risk-adverse in extremis and the basic risks such as falling down holes* are a real concern for them. But is 1000 acres really needed for chainsaw training – who are they trying to fool?
Ignorance is Bliss
At Porridge Pots DIO have installed a sign:
Problem is, only 50% of the lines of text are telling the truth.
The “MILITARY BYELAWS APPLY” bit is correct and true. The lands do indeed come under the Aldershot Military Lands Byelaws.
The “NO ENTRY” statement is encouraging everyone to stay away, but this sign is trying to stop people using Porridge Pots – an area that comes under Section 2 of the byelaws and has received repeated political assurances that recreation will be permitted at all times when not in use.
It’s a very crude attempt to try and deny legitimate recreation by trying it on with a little bit of fear and intimidation thrown in to make the sign look scary.
DIO up the ante at Long Valley with this:
Proclaiming “DANGER” and “MILITARY TRAINING IN PROGRESS” sounds very official and serious.
Except we now know the signs are not always telling the truth – far from it – and have been guilty of lying since the very first day they were used.
Again the reference to the byelaws is printed on the notice.
But what part of Section 2 and recreational access at all times when not in use – does DIO struggle to understand?
DIO very much remain dependent on our ignorance to impose changes and apply false interpretation. We have a sneaking suspicion they are either a) exceptionally ignorant of what the current byelaws actually say (More on this soon…much more…) and simply make things up that suits their own agenda, or b) are simply expressing what powers the new byelaws will grant them in the hope no one will notice and if they do zero accountability will follow.
Yet at the same time DIO will go to great lengths to paint a positive picture and are on record to claim that access to Long Valley in particular is a cyclist and equestrian utopia. In realit gates are scarce and none meet the minimum standards for horse riders.
“We very much welcome the public coming to use the estate but at the right time and when it’s safe for them.”
But let’s be honest; a 5km stretch of barbed wire topped deterrent fence with exceptionally limited and locked gates cannot in any way be described as “welcome”. DIO’s intent with the fenced areas is clear…Maybe Mark Ludlow didn’t get the multiple memos?
In absence of any rational explanation we are at a loss to understand why a department of the Ministry of Defence can disregard the intent of the byelaws and – perhaps more important – why Ministers such as Jeremy Quin are comfortable with civil servants ignoring clear instructions?
TAG have raised a series of complaints regarding access issues with both DIO and the Minister.
To date no acknowledgement or response has been received. The process of accountability is painfully slow and has been escalated to the Ministerial Correspondence Unit.
Currently our hopes for accountability measured against The Seven Principles of Public Life are not high as we remain witness to MOD marking its own homework, but rest assured TAG will remain on the case. Our local MP Ranil Jayawardena has already given his support for escalation if necessary.
Adding your voice to the complaints would be appreciated. Please feel free to quote this post and write to your MP using this link.
*We are not making this up. Being unable to read a warning sign and falling down a hole is on record as an unacceptable risk. Literacy rates in the UK are exceptionally high and the warning sign in question carried a graphic to add further explanation.