Revealed – Byelaws Intent

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 areas in dark red are zero access areas; ranges or Rushmoor Arena. The light red areas were, as of 2018, open for recreation when not in use for military training

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.

Access Today

Fast forward to 2021 and we can see some changes:

Same map as previous with overlay – the purple areas represent lands lost to casual recreation, either permanently or for extended duration

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:

Aldershot training areas with SSSI overlaid as green hatching

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. 

Potential Losses

A worst case view, with current and potential losses combined:

The combined view of already lost plus designated areas with potential to be Protected Areas.

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:

Write to your MP – Raise your concerns

Denied Access – Fencing and DIO

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.

Powers Exceeded

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. 

How much DANGER is present if the lands are empty? A quick answer is “not much” yet DIO persist in blocking access for extended periods when the lands are not in use.

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? 

Long Valley at sunset with gates locked and the space unused. Here fencing blocks access 24/7 for 2.25 and 1 mile respectively. Access must be preserved so please take a moment and write to you MP asking for additional gates.

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:

Write To Them

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.

Time for Change – Byelaws Fit For Purpose

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. 

A cyclist enjoying sunrise at Caesars Camp. Without protection from fencing the recreational potential of these areas are at risk.

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.