“…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.
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.