Setting the Record Straight

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?

A DIO “Welcome” to the estate – making it as difficult as possible irrespective of use. DIO are on the record as saying this gate at Long Valley is acceptable for cyclists and horse riders. On this we disagree and its not hard to see why.

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.

The gates and 5kms of barbed wire topped deterrent fence are a welcome sight – if you happen to be DIO and want to see recreation blocked at all times irrespective of use. We now know from analysis of booking on/off records Long Valley was used just 10% of the time it was closed.

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.

Hard 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…).

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.

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.

If you are stopped and told to leave due to military training nearby then comply but please make a note of the date, time and precise location. We can verify any TSM claim by checking the booking on/off records for the area – just like we have done for Long Valley.

When in use this place is lethal as its looking at the pointy end of loaded guns. When not in use the risk of harm drops to near zero yet DIO maintain its closed for “safety” reasons – such as falling down holes. The nearest hole to fall into from this point is about 500m away.

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.

*See the Community use survey reports:

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 off whenever 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.

And Finally…

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.

Signs And Lies

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.

Persistent Lockout

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?

Summary

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.