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.
The recent Respect the Ranges video goes as far to say:
“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.
Finally, after many delays the new Aldershot byelaws may be revealed and the review to commence. They have been “imminent” for a long time and twice start dates have been suggested…only to consultation to fail to start.
But back in December DIO let slip their intent and their plans for the byelaws and recreational access was revealed. You can read the minutes here in section 2.
It does not make comfortable reading and directly contradicts the repeated Ministerial assurances…it is not the MOD’s intention to limit lawful use… asserted again only last week in a letter to local residents.
Protection? Or Problem?
From what we know, DIO are intending to define two distinct designations:
Protected Areas that are closed to unauthorised persons and;
Controlled Areas where access is only permitted when the area is not being used for military training.
Our reading is that today (setting aside for one moment DIO’s apparent disregard for Section 2 of the current byelaws) all the areas we enjoy now are likely to fit into the Controlled Areas definition.
The greatest concern is Protected Areas.
DIO go on to explain why these areas are deemed necessary:
ML provided background information, explaining the problems involved with balancing wider public access and the legislative requirement to protect SSSI, SPA and other ecological areas across the estate.
Without sight of the proposed bylaws we do not have a clear picture, but with DIO’s “hostile environment” approach towards recreational access (closed car parks, ignoring the 2019 agreement on cycling as two examples) coupled with an unwillingness to respect Ministerial commitments, we feel that a reasonable summary is that the presence of wildlife-protecting designations will be used to prevent the recreational access at all times when not in use.
The presence of wildlife-protecting designations will be used (abused) to prevent the recreational access at all times when not in use. Protected Areas will be imposed under the banner of protecting wildlife to permanently remove our access to the lands irrespective of actual use for military training.
Protected Areas could be imposed under the banner of protecting wildlife to permanently remove public access to the lands irrespective of actual use for military training.
This raises the question “How much of the lands enjoy current protection?” Let us consider the current situation.
Access in 2018
Until the fencing went in at Long Valley and Porridge Pots, and Ash Ranges was open when not in use recreational access can be illustrated by this map:
The spaces in light red represent approximately 12,500 acres of open space that, under the stated intent of Section 2 of the Aldershot Byelaws, are open for recreation at all times when not in use.
Fast forward to 2021 and we can see some changes:
Based on the experience at Ash Ranges DIO will close access with impunityand then refuse to engage with the public leaving the local community reduced toresorting to a potential legal challengeand demonstrates DIO’s attitude and example as a good neighbour.
Long Valley is a case in point; It took 18 months of audit and political lobbying to see DIO partially meet Ministerial assurances of the land being available for recreation when not in use for military training. This is an ongoing issue and TAG have an open complaint with examples of extended periods of closure being applied when the lands are empty.
The locations of closed car parks are not marked but the intention is clear; DIO do not want recreational users on the lands and are prepared to ignore Section 2 of the byelaws and Ministerial directives to achieve that aim.
SSSI Protected Areas
If the stated intent of Protected Areas is the creation of authorised access only nature reserves, just how much space is at stake?
Using the DEFRA Magic Map Application online tool allows anyone to view all sorts of information about the natural world with an Ordnance Survey map as a background – you can check it out yourself here.
We were interested in two things; Aldershot Military Lands and wildlife designations, such as Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Here’s what it revealed:
Therefore the short answer to “how much” is “pretty much all of it. To the north the military lands butt up against the trails of Swinley Forest, which like its military neighbour is designated SSSI.
If DIO are permitted to close recreational access to the lands to “protect SSSI, SPA and other ecological areas across the estate” then will the Crown Estate follow suit?
Probably not, but not shown on the map are other areas that benefit from SSSI protection AND freely allow public access:
- Fleet Pond
- Eversley Wood
- Yateley Heath Wood
- Yateley Common
- Bagshot Heath
- Wildmoor Heath
- Blackwater Valley SSSI
- Heath Lake SSSI
There are plenty of cases and spaces where people and wildlife can and do mix,
Based on the experience at Ash Ranges DIO will close access with impunityand then refuse to engage with the public leaving the local community reduced to resorting to a potential legal challenge and clearly demonstrates DIO’s attitude and example as a good neighbour.
A worst case view, with current and potential losses combined:
The concerns is that over a period of time DIO would have the potential and firm legal basis to remove massive areas that today are free to enjoy with responsible recreation when not in use for military training.
Even when constrained by existing byelaws and political instruction DIO cannot be trusted as shown with spending £36,000 on 820m of fence at Long Valley to protect a “high value training area” but what protection does Long Valley need when faced with nothing more than recreational use? Just how can public funds be spent when the impact is a loss of access at all times irrespective of use and there is zero consideration for public access in the plan?
The Data. The Facts.
IIt is disappointing to conclude public exclusion is DIO’s intent. From the Byelaws Review Recreational Surveys (You can read them here: Surrey Heath, Aldershot and North East Hampshire) we know very few are a “single activity” user of the lands…dog walking one day, cycling the next…and 30% of respondents listed “wildlife watching” as part of theirenjoyment of the lands. On this basis it feels wrong to exclude people from the landscape, but the experience from Ash Ranges is indicative of an uncaring DIO.
But then again, should we really be surprised? Towards the latter half of last year DIO went to great lengths to explain to TAG why cyclists must stick to the fire roads – the quoted reason was it was “driven by the requirements of wildlife legislation” backed up with them supplying a copy of Natural England’s document Scientific research into the effects of access on nature conservation: Part 2: access on bicycle and horseback tto support their arguments.
For those who care about the lands its an interesting read, if a little light on relevant evidence. TAG do not understand why DIO forwarded such a document with so much positive to say about cycling.
TAG were left wondering why DIO forwarded such a document as there was as much positive to say about cycling. The report acknowledged damage to ground nesting bird nests by cyclists is rare and other recreational users likely responsible for harming sand lizard eggs, to name but two relevant points.
TAG found the document encouraging but when we shared our enthusiasm with DIO they denied that the document would form or guide policy.
If the damage to SSSI is so great then why not prosecute those responsible today? DIO have acknowledged such laws and powers exist, yet cannot or will not see them applied to protect the space – something we would all support. To claim the lands require greater protectionwhilst not taking action under the currently available laws is disingenuous.
The truth is no one bothers to ride on the really sensitive areas. They are physically hard work and when faced with literally hundreds of alternative tracks and trails there is no point when its easy to get from A to B on any number of established and often narrow (less harm) routes.
Summary and Action
The devil of the new byelaws will very much lie in the details of what they say and what power(s) it gifts to DIO. We have only seen a hint of what is possible, but clearly it flies directly in the face of every political and Ministerial assurance to otherwise limit or restrict recreational access.
The minutes of the meeting may be an expression of what powers they think are needed…or it is already in the draft byelaw.
We do not know for sure but we do know that DIO is unwilling to engage with TAG. It requires constant political attention and this is both tedious and expensive in everyone’s time. TAG has resorted to maintaininga “DIO Statement Fact Checking Sheet” whereby every utterance is subject to close examination for evidence of the truth. Currently the list stands at 58 entries and it makes disappointing reading both from a taxpayer and public user perspective. Collated by TAG and the Ash Ranges residents behind Save our Spaces the document will be published shortly and allow the public to reach their own conclusions.
Based on this we are very hesitant to believe DIO meet all of the seven principles for public bodies, as set out in the Nolan Report – more on this very soon.
We are also keenly aware of just how hostile DIO are towards recreation today. A byelaw that enhances and enables the loss of recreational space will see the takeover and loss of space complete.
What can we do? DIO do seem to ignore politicians but we know they do not like being held to scrutiny
Please write to your MP and make it absolutely clear you do not support any attempt to remove casual recreational access when the lands are not in use for military training.
As ever you can use the following link:
One aspect of the military lands we cherish is the freedom to roam when they are not in use for military training. The responses to the byelaws survey show this is a widely held view and that casual access is seen as a valuable resource for mental and physical health by the local community.
This value is eroded when access restrictions such as fences or total exclusion are imposed especially when the lands remain empty and unused by the military.
We have pressed both DIO and MOD to explain what powers they are exercising to erect fences to limit and block access when the lands are not in use. To date we have not received a satisfactory answer and they are now refusing to engage further.
DIO refer these barriers to access as “Deterrent Fences“. They work 24/7 365 days a year deterring responsible recreation at all times irrespective of wether the land is being used for training, or not. These fences are the polar opposite of the often repeated political mantra stating there is “no intention to further restrict public access”.
To date over £250,000 of public money has been spend on recreational deterrent at Long Valley alone.
The Legal View
Recently TAG received a piece of pro bono legal advice from a top law firm. They were asked to examine the Aldershot byelaws, in particular Section 2 (recreational when not being used for military training) and were asked what powers this gave DIO to block access.
It’s legally technical but DIO do have the power to restrict access but only when the lands are subject to extended and heavy use for military training, typically on a 24hrs a day/7 days a week /365 days a year basis.
In areas such as Keogh and Gibraltar Barracks fencing for security makes sense. These areas are indeed subject to year-long use.
For the remainder of the training estate the legality of fencing and restrictions are less clear. There are no areas subject to heavy use with Long Valley, Ash Ranges and Porridge Pots seeing extended periods where the military are absent, yet the gates remain locked. In Long Valley the lack of gates along the southern, northern and western boundaries are causing access difficulties irrespective of use. Here deterrent fences extend for 2.25 and 1 mile respectively, blocking access (and exit) at all times.
We know the courts and judges don’t generally think that the legislature includes meaningless words in statutes. We can conclude from “when not being used for military purposes” that these words are intended to convey purpose and intent and would not be added without good reason – to protect access.
Simply, there is no other reason – apart from military use – that can close access and the lands must be subject to heavy use to fully justify fences or complete loss of access.
We believe DIO have overstepped their powers and that erecting fences and loss of access when not in use for military training are incompatible with the moral and legal intent of the byelaws.
Nor do we believe it’s the first time DIO have shown disregard for the law, with a claim for breach of copyright and issues with data protection legislation expected to start soon.
In the short term we will continue to press the case with DIO. Over the last three years we have seen loss of access when the lands are empty and we are approaching the first anniversary of the closure of Ash Ranges. We believe it is high time these errors are corrected.
The Long View
This raises longer-term concerns.
Last year TAG called for byelaws that were fit for purpose and offered protection against loss of recreational access. It now appears protection has been inherent, yet seemingly ignored by DIO.
Can an organisation that blocks access without good reason, and on the face of it disregard the law, be considered fit for purpose to deliver and work within byelaws that preserves and protects recreational access?
Over the years DIO has been increasingly hostile to casual recreation, going the extra mile to make access as difficult as possible with fencing and car park closures making it clear that the contents of the byelaw consultation will need very careful review.
We fully respect the needs of the army and understand their training always must take priority…no one would want to disrupt those who serve…but as the byelaw makes clear when the lands are empty they must be easy to access and permit recreation for all, not just those who are willing to climb a fence.
Time for Action
If fences and loss of access have impacted you do please take a moment to write to your MP and raise your concerns. This issue is currently on the political agenda and your voice will count. Writing adds to the numbers seeking accountability and helps us press politicians for accountability and the changes we seek.
You use this link to quickly pen an email to your MP:
Simply explain the value of access and what it means…and ask why DIO are permitted block access at all times even if the lands are not in use…and when the byelaws says otherwise.
Since March this year we have received persistent reports from riders who have been stopped by Landmarc or DIO representatives to be told either “cycling is against the byelaws” or “cycling is only permitted on made up tracks”.
This policy is at odds to the jointly agreed statement issued by TAG and Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) in July 2019 (see this link to our Facebook Page post).
TAG had not been informed of this change in policy that requires cyclists sticking to the fire roads, nor advised that staff have been instructed to stop cyclists.
Furthermore, no amendments have been requested by DIO either prior to publication or since and so TAG consider the original agreement remains relevant.
We have challenged this recent change in policy and its purpose. Various reasons have been given – mostly due to wildlife legislation protecting the lands – but as wildlife laws apply equally to all public use of the lands we cannot consider them reasonable justification to single out cyclists for special treatment.
In spite of requests seeking evidence no documentation has supplied leaving us to conclude the policy is flawed, baseless and without good reason. Other recreational users – walkers, joggers and even horse riders – are not subject to restrictions, so why are cyclists treated as a special case?
We view the timing and introduction of this policy as a potential act of ‘softening up’ the community, preparing them for what new byelaws may or may not permit. If true, this makes a mockery of the forthcoming consultation and draws its legitimacy into question.
We have not been alone in being singled out for special treatment. In 2014 Landmarc/DIO was targeting Farnham Ramblers for organising group walks. With strong national representation the Ramblers prevailed and ended up with a broad agreement with DIO – you can read about it here:
We see the jointly agreed TAG/DIO statement as closely aligned with the Ramblers agreement.
So what are we to do if stopped riding on the lands?
This simple checklist is based on the Ramblers example and is intended to promote reasonable and consistent engagement with DIO and Landmarc representatives:
- First step is to establish who has stopped your ride. Politely ask for some identity and whom they are representing. Under the current byelaws any person who is not MOD police, a serving officer or NCO must be authorised in writing and asking to see this is not unreasonable. If the individual refuses, politely disengage and continue your ride.
- Establish why you are being stopped;
- If the reason is due to nearby military training then be prepared to change your plans and alter your route if necessary. Ask for advice; seek alternative unused areas and vacate any training area where training is underway using a route that reduces the risks of disturbing troops.
- If the reason is given “cycling is against the byelaws” or “you must stick to the made up roads” then politely remind the person that DIO and TAG published a joint statement in July 2019 legitmising responsible cycling on the lands and that the statement made no reference to using made up tracks.
- If the person remains adamant and insists you leave the lands or must stick to the fire roads then make a note of the location, date and time in addition to the name of the individual. Comply with the request and afterwards please contact TAG and let us know the details.
- If the situation becomes in any way uncomfortable disengage with the individual and leave the area. Report the occurrence to MOD control room on 01420 483 405 and provide date, time and location of the incident. Afterwards contact TAG and let us know too.
At all times follow the TAG Code of Conduct. Remember we are ambassadors for our sport and we should always uphold high standards of respect for the lands and those who train on them.
The individuals on the ground will have been tasked by their chain of command and are following a direct order – we have no cause for complaint with them and have some sympathy for anyone simply doing their job and being placed in what may be an uncomfortable situation. At all times maintaining a high level mutual respect will do much to maintain good relations between all concerned so remain polite irrespective of any provocation.
Rest assured we will remain engaged with DOI and we will keep everyone up to date if there are further changes. In the meantime please remember, our collective grievance lays solely at the feet of the individual(s) responsible for what remains an irrational, unreasonable and discriminatory policy towards cyclists.
A law that preserves recreational use must also protect access. Without protection the lands will remain at risk of imposed fencing and greater restrictions.
Prior to 1854 the lands were open and considered vital for the recreation and general good health of the population. In 1854 the army were awarded the Aldershot lands for the purposes of military training. For the next 164 years recreation was permitted whenever the lands were not in use for training. In 1976 public access for recreation became enshrined in law; it is clear that military training takes precedent but when not being used for this purpose the community must be at liberty to enjoy it. It is a shared space, for military and civilians alike.
In 2018 the simple principle of recreational access was unilaterally and arbitrary changed by Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) as they undertook a program of fence construction. Public exclusion, irrespective of training activity, has become the de facto approach and is in contravention to a 2003 recommendation that asked the DIO to form closer working relationships with the public.
Since 2018, 1540 acres of the lands have been permanently fenced off, excluding access even when the lands are not in use. Over time, left unchecked, there is nothing to stop the entire area being fenced off and lost forever. The lands are a highly valued and vital space for maintaining and enhancing both physical and mental health. The DIO must not be allowed to arbitrarily and unilaterally remove access via a series of stealth measures.
We are therefore calling for a new byelaw, one that preserves recreation and protects access for the public in the way that was always intended. A law that protects recreation alone is not fit for purpose and will fail the community as more lands are fenced and become no-go zones.
TAG have prepared a position paper clearly stating what changes are necessary and you can download a copy here:
The consultation period for the byelaw has not yet started but we must not wait. The DIO method of ‘consultation’ is to tell people what has been decided, not to invite comment and to ignore suggestions for improvement. We seek real change and the new byelaw must work for all parties and preserve the space for the local community and future generations.
If there is just one positive thing you can do right now it is this; write to your MP now telling them that you support the position paper and insist the military lands remain open and accessible for recreation when not in use.
You can find and write to your local MP using the www.writetothem.com website.