Looking back…Looking forward

As 2021 starts to fade into memory its time to take stock of things and think about the future. This TAG post does just that, but we will also remind ourselves of the value of the lands and why casual access when not in use remains more important than ever.

“In the overcrowded and noisy world we live in these areas offer wonderful calm respite for us. Don’t give in to the greed of the few. We need these spaces.” – Local resident

The above quote was drawn from the 2020 review survey of recreational users conducted by our friends at Byelaws Review. The survey was, we believe, the first and only detailed look at how the community uses the lands and their value. For inspiration and justification for Section 2 of the byelaws – casual access at all times when not in use – the quotes are compelling. Even more so when the simple fact that roughly 8500 people took the time to express in their own words their feelings for the lands.

“It is much valued recreational space and used by all ages for so many purposes. We also help to look after it as we can report any misuse and problems before the military may be aware.” – Local Resident

The reports were split by local constituency and they can be downloaded in the following links:

We would encourage everyone to take a moment to read them, not least of which would be those authoring the new byelaws and specifically those whom responsiblity for access lies within DIO SE.

Access Denied

It should come as no surprise to hear two main and significant areas remain subject to draconian restrictions; Long Valley and Ash Ranges.

The political assurances issued from before the fence went up were clear; recreational access when not in use. The Minister of Defence Procurement has been unequivocal with a directive instructing DIO to do just that.

“To be able to get outside into natural woodland, to see the wildlife and be able to run free. All of this is so good for my physical and mental health, and the same for my children.” – Local Resident

Yet as recently as last month we recorded gates locked during a civilian orienteering event on the 8th and from the 13th of December witnessed more dog walkers & joggers than any evidence of military training – let alone the “dangerous” kind the signs claim.

A civilan orienteering event – a good reason to lock the gates? We don’t think so…

DIO remain unwilling and unable to follow the very basic of instructions yet seem unconcerned that the DANGER signs are consistently publishing misinformation. TAG firmly beleives signs “crying wolf” fail to support a trusted system of safety – something DIO claim the gates exist for.

…they [military lands] enable us to get out in the fresh air, give us much needed exercise and pure enjoyment of the outside and nature.” – Local Resident

Its regrettable £250,000 of our money was wasted in this way and the lack of gated access continues to trigger casual access restoration. Equally regrettable is watching a branch of the civil service defy politicians and damage community relations whilst failing to uphold the basic standards in public life.

Elsewhere, the technical area at Ash Ranges remains closed with 331 acres of space denied at a time when the community really needed it. The blame game continues with collective responsibility (closure) being forced upon residents while the culprits (vandals) remain unpunished, a policy that has enraged the local vicar.

DIO have all the provisions in the Ash Ranges and Aldershot byelaws to impose fines on those who transgress yet elect to ignore the responsible users and shut them out.

Clear puddles and MTB tracks – evidence of who is and is not using Long Valley

To see the community treated in this manner is truly disappointing. The local politicians seem to be unwilling or unable to tackle DIO over their behaviour and appear supportive of both collective punishment and the DIO proposed “compromise” with the open spaces replaced by a corridor.

The purpose of the corridor through the ranges is – and we quote the Minister for Defence Procurement again – is to “…allow easier access from Ash Vale through the Technical Area on a designated fenced path and out onto the broader Ash Ranges area”

A casual glance at an Ordnance Survey map and its tightly packed contour lines reveals the route will fail to deliver the promise of easier access. Our friends at Save Ash Ranges have published an analysis here.

“The nature is outstanding …I have always enjoyed the open, rugged beauty of MoD land and ranges; they are simply unique & stunning places.” – Local Resident

In summary, whoever planned the routes didn’t complete basic geography lessons, nor understand what makes a path usable, while drawing some coloured areas on a satellite map. Regrettably, we see little evidence of any diligence being applied here.

More evidence of DIO wasting time and money to justify a very erroneous decision?

Save Ash Ranges believe so and we very much agree.

The Plan to Remove Access

TAG took a deeper look at this back in March. Mark Ludlow is on public record explaining how DIO have worked up the justification to exclude us from the areas we love. According to the minutes of the Hampshire Countryside Access Forum meeting of December 2020 two designations will apply to the lands:

  • Protected Areas – closed to all unauthorised persons and;
  • Controlled Areas – access permitted when the area is not in use for military training

The justification for full closure?

The need to balance the sometime conflicting requirements of enhanced public access with the conservation piece.

Thats correct…DIO seek to exclude “unauthorised” people because of:

…the problems involved with balancing wider public access and the legislative requirement to protect SSSI, SPA and other ecological areas across the estate.

To date no communication withdrawing the stated intent have been issued or received. So it transpires DIO may try and use wildlife protection to prevent recreation, even if the lands are not in use.

….The importance that the military place on the mental wellbeing of their people should be reflected in providing access to not only the military but the local community who access this vital resource to enjoy this unique environment to maintain their mental health by enhancing their leisure activities. I use these lands to get away from it all on my mountain bike and cannot over emphasise how access to these areas has allowed me to ‘recharge my batteries’ and maintain my physical and mental wellbeing which in turn allows me to be more productive at work…Access to these lands by the public must be preserved for the good of both the community and the military.” – Local Resident

In a letter dated July 2020 Jeremy Quin MP explains further:

The MOD is committed to the protection of designated sites on the Defence Estate. Defence Infrastructure Organisation Ecologists are responsible for identifying designated sites and other important features on the Estate and will provide expert advice during the Byelaws review process. A summary of environmental issues and other proposed protection measures will be included in the Byelaws consultation document.

The value of the lowland heaths – very rare habitat – is recognised and understood. DIO are really dragging the bottom of the barrel if justification of removing Section 2 and denying responsible recreation is limited to protecting wildlife.

It should perhaps come as no surprise to find DIO have previous form at making up rules to suit themselves, and in the case of Middlewick Ranges in Essex DIO generated some “alternative metrics” to deliver an answer that suited their needs and desires when it came to selling the land for housing.

We should therefore expect nothing less here?

“With the increase in house building locally any open space which is home to wildlife and can be used for outdoor activities is becoming more and more valuable.” – Local Resident

Much of the Aldershot lands already carry legal protection – SSSI and SPA – and if these laws are not strong enough then perhaps wider changes to primary legislation are required. Using a military byelaw to protect wildlife we believe is a back door means for DIO to achieve their aims; removal of recreation unless they can be bothered to unlock gates.

From the survey we know 30% of recreational users listed wildlife watching as an activity. If enacted DIO will be guilty – again – of failing to enforce the laws of the lands and serving up more collective punishment. We should not really be surprised when an organisation that understands the cost of everything and the value of nothing continues to ignore the responsible commuity.

The other concern surrounds the application of Controlled Areas. As Long Valley clearly demonstrates DIO will permit access when they can be bothered rather than when the byelaws or indeed a ministerial directive informs them when recreation shall be permitted.

With a failure to deliver against the simplest of instructions – recreation at all times when not in use – and defying a ministerial directive DIO have given clear direction and intent as to how the future may look if the byelaws proceed without challenge.

“…Access to large areas of unspoilt and natural environments are absolutely essential for my mental health and wellbeing, I believe the lack of local and easily accessible areas of true wild forests and woods are responsible for the mental health crisis which is especially prevalent in the south of England. The military lands are a local lifeline for me.” – Local Resident

It is for these reasons TAG have consistenly called for not only preservation of Section 2 casual acess but protection against DIO excesses. More detail can be found in this link.

The really disappointing aspect is DIO can do far better, but it appears only when legally compelled to do so.

Thanks to its right to roam all military training areas in Scotland remain available for casual recreation when not in use and the evidence for this resides in none other than MOD’s own policy document – JSP850 Public Access and Recreation and to quote:

Land subject to military byelaws is excepted from the provisions of the Act [Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003] only during times when the land is being used for a military purpose.

JSP850 covers open access with Scotland being subject – thanks to its laws – to far greater provisions of access:

In Scotland, open access, as defined by the LR(S)A, applies to all forms of non-motorised recreational access.

So even horse riding, cycling and mountain biking is respected and enabled. Beyond “in use” the laws exclude further access “management” or imposition of linear routes.

What is good enough for Scotland is good enough for Aldershot?

Yes, very much so.

We expect and call for the Scotland model of access to apply, more or less reflecting what we have and enjoy today, in spite of JSP850 broadly ignorning the existence of Section 2 of the Aldershot byelaws.

Local Voices Local Power

When faced with such disegenous acts by unelected and unaccounable civil servants its easy to become dispirited. As we have seen in the recent news power from the very top down can be a corrupting influence and without checks and balances those who wield it can act against the interests of society. Bearing witness to corruption and lies does not build a cohesive and respectful community nor does it build trust and cooperation.

But there is one consistent and uplifiting theme that persists.

The community spirit, joy and affection the lands unite us. Nowhere are these expressed finer than in the examples of personal comments sprinkled throughout this post.

The Claycart stream in Long Valley in autum. To lose access to these areas because DIO cannot be bothered to unlock gates would be a tragedy

If we truly believe there is a better way then each of us is capable of doing the right thing, behaving responsibly and treating the lands and others with respect is the simplest of steps.

We await the publication of byelaws fit for purpose, laws that enable military training when required and full access on a casual basis when the lands are empty. We trust those who are empowered to write the byelaws are taking note, if only to achieve a smooth consulation period where few objections are raised.

Equally, those tasked with ensuring access is enabled have no excuses to ignore a community that cares deeply for the lands and the benefits they bring. Nor can they claim to have not read Jerermy Quin’s directive. Casual recreational access is at the core of Section 2 of the byelaws and respecting it is not only legally required but carries a moral obligaiton too.

We will leave the last word to a local resident:

“In such a highly populated area, and ever more so with the allowed large scale local developments, the open spaces are critical for physical and mental well being. Losing these areas would confine local people to their tiny gardens, footpaths and small SANGS. We completely understand the need for the army to train, but there must be a balance between this and local tax payers needs. In an age where the aim is for peace and to reduce the military forces, it seems astonishing that now they decide to remove the areas from public access.” – Local Resident

Finally, if you wish to raise any concerns, observations or comments with the local MP please use the Write to Them website to drop your elected representative a letter.

Where Are The Gates?

Back in April this year our local MP, Ranil Jayawardena, wrote a letter to a few constituents. This was in a response to complaints regarding a severe lack of access at Long Valley, and the fact DIO had not complied with the ministerial directive to keep the gates unlocked when not in use.

Two statements in the letter caught our eye:

I have been told that it is the MoD’s intention to include foot gates at various access points and work has already been commissioned to address this issue…

…officials have been directed to make sure the existing gates are open for public access to Long Valley when it is not in use for military training.

You can read a copy of the letter for yourself here:

Its now December and its painfully apparent DIO South East staff have not complied with either.

There are no new gates.

The area remains closed when not in use.

If you wish to know more details then please read on. Equally, if you feel its about time the gates were installed and open when not in use then do please take a moment to write to your MP and ask two questions:

  • Where are the promised additional gates?
  • Why do the gates at Long Valley remain locked when its not in use?

As ever, the easiest way to contact your MP is to use the Write to Them website.

No Gates

It’s painfully obvious to anyone using Long Valley the current number and location of gates is inadequate. This map shows us why:

The red area is the now-fenced part of Long Valley. The green dots represent existing gates and the red crosses indicate where new gates are required. The red lines show the routes required between existing gates.

With no gates to the north and just one gate serving the west access here requires climbing the fence or, as indicated by damage, cutting a hole in the wire. The southern side has just two gates with the fence blocking routes in use for decades.

TAG have pressed for more gates, in part to reduce the ongoing spend of public money maintaining the fence as casual access is reasserted but mainly to help those less able access the area for recreation.

Regrettably the proposals have been been disregarded by DIO with a simple “too close to dangerous roads” statement. This claim overlooks the fact all gates are near a road and all locations are set back from the kerb…We are deep into the territory of where policy and decision making is driven by ego rather than evidence, something that fails to meet the standards in public life.

How do we know DIO have no intention to install more gates? Back in July we raised an FOI asking to see works orders for gate installation.

It was little surprise to find there was none.

But hang on, didn’t the MP’s letter say work had already started?

Either politicians are simply telling us something we want to hear hoping we will go away and forget about the gates…or DIO have failed to act. With a track record of failing to deliver we err on the side of DIO inaction.

Locked Gates

Back in July 2020 the Minister for Defence Procurement wrote a letter that contained the following statement:

I can assure you that officials have been directed to ensure the existing gates are open for public access to Long Valley when it is not in use for military training.

We now know DIO staff have ignored the minister and failed to comply with this directive.

The gates have remained locked for extended periods when there is no training underway. We can be very confident of this as its based on DIO’s own booking on and off records. Every formal user of the lands must do this when they arrive and leave. Here’s the analysis of the Long Valley records from September 2020 to February 2021:

MonthHours ClosedHours Used
September50421.7
October4987.6
November34625.1
December2662.2
January28125.9
February32034.3
Total2215116.8
Booking on/off recorded duration vs published closure dates & times taken from DIO’s own records

The number of hours used seems incredibly low, but this is very much backed up by casual observation of what is – or is not – going on in Long Valley.

A puddle with clear water. No one has driven through this for days, if not weeks.

Photographs such as the above provide excellent evidence of the current activity at Long Valley. TAG are maintaining an audit and with the news troop numbers set to fall, or head off to Germany, we are not expecting a rise in use anytime soon. If you can contribute with photos and observations then do please get in touch.

MTB tracks, walkers and dog paw prints show who is using Long Valley and none are military training, yet the gates remain locked.

We are unable to analyse the booking on/off records beyond February. DIO realised what TAG were up to and subsequent FIO have not yielded any meaningful information. We now firmly believe DIO staff are deliberately concealing the truth about just how little Long Valley is used.

The £250,000 spend of public money on the fence really isn’t looking good value, is it?

DIO staff – specifically those tasked with public access – have a lot to answer for here and action to restore access is well overdue.

Verification and Trust

Some DIO staff include a guiding principles statement of “My Word is my Bond; Trust but Verify” in their email signature. Having consistently failed to verify TAG struggle to trust what DIO say. This applies to both the corporate and individual levels and the bond value of the words is more rather than less likely to be graded a junk asset and worthless.

Politicians need to get a grip and start actively managing DIO and ensure their instructions and commitments are complied with. Gates must remain unlocked when not in use and the additional access points installed as a priority.

Locked gates and no training represents lost opportunity we can never get back. Time has passed and the space remained inaccessible and the status quo must not continue.

Those responsible for access must be held accountable for the loss of recreational opportunity, and to ensure the Access part of the public office held is recognised with deeds and actions, and without further delay.

DIO – The Silent Service

Way back in March Hart District Council wrote the DIO Chief Executive Graham Dalton, raising concerns among other things at the lack of access at Long Valley.

You can read a copy of the letter here:

In April Guildford Borough Council also wrote a letter to Mr Dalton, raising concerns and seeking answers to the issue of public access at Ash Ranges.

You can read a copy of that letter here:

At time of writing neither council had received a response from Mr Dalton.

But before we look into that, a quick reminder of some of the issues, and DIO’s spend to “fix” them.

The Power to Spend

DIO display a special level of contempt for elected officials and the communities they find themselves dealing with. A case in point is the matter of additional gates at Long Valley, and ensuring the space is open for recreation when not in use. Local residents have received written assurances of both but DIO simply refuse to act.

The promised gates? Not even planned, let alone installed.

When the fence was built DIO were assuring everyone it was for public safety. The bill for fencing now runs close to £250,000 and we know the lands are empty more often than not with DIO’s own records showing February 2021 was used just 34 hours of a total of 320.

Back in 2018 DIO were claiming Long Valley was in use “day and night” and the area will be kept open for recreation when not in use. Regrettably neither are true and provide more evidence of DIO unable to communicate the truth. So confident in their claims, the signs are still hanging on the fence in 2021.

A quarter of a million pounds have been spent on fences to protect us from danger that simply does not exist for most of the time. When in use, typically its one single vehicle making a lot of noise driving slowly around the test track, or parked up at Eelmoor. The vehicles are easy to see and – most important – avoid.

We struggle to understand how the fence can be described as good value for the taxpayer, nor can DIO demonstrate adherence to their own written statements, yet political directives to deliver remain ignored.

But its not an isolated waste…at Ash Ranges DIO have spent close to £50,000 on a path that no one wants or needs whilst the claims of risk are centred around the visually impaired or illiterate being unable to understand signs and that they might hurt themselves if they fall down a hole.

Or maybe its COVID fault.

But then blaming the local community for vandalism seems reasonable in DIO’s eyes.

The messages for closure at Ash have been consistently confusing and mixed, but ultimately we believe is founded on zero evidence. Such is the risk aversion at DIO…it’s bordering on paranoia rather than a rational, evidence-lead approach. This in itself breaches standards in public life…whilst remembering the costs of vandalism at Ash Ranges could not be disseminated because the estimates were privy only to those with “…corporate knowledge of such events…”.

Our view: DIO are bleeding our cash in an attempt to fix issues that have no evidence base supporting their claims whilst ignoring what collaboration with the local community could deliver.

We are not alone in this view. The Public Accounts Committee agree and although the numbers are much bigger and are dealing with land disposal (housing estate anyone?) statements such as this are eye catching:

...the Department wastes resources that could support frontline personnel and develop new military capabilities.

Its difficult to disagree. The PCC are clear – DIO waste our money.

The Power to Ignore

DIO CEO Graham Dalton’s LinkedIn profile is an interesting read. Our eye was drawn to this personal statement and the claim made:

…adept at aligning wider stakeholder interests with core business objectives.

Just how does this statement fit with Mr Dalton’s failure to respond to both Hart and Guildford Councils?

There are perhaps a couple of possible explanations:

  • Mr Dalton does not see the local community, and specifically their elected representatives, as stakeholders.
  • Mr Dalton is more adept at personal, positive PR than delivery of engagement.

Thanks to a massive response to the Byelaws Review survey we know the lands account for at least 59,000 hours of recreation a week. The Aldershot Byelaws, whilst not unique, are rare and Section 2 grants recreational access at all times when not in use for military training. If this does not make the local community very significant stakeholders then what would?

This ability to ignore does not come as a surprise to us.

DIO SE, and in particular Mark Ludlow (DIO SE Security and Access) and Lt Col Dickie Bishop, have a track record of ignoring the local community and we have Parlimentary Ombudsman complaints seeking answers.

Either way and for whatever reason, the fact Mr Dalton can apparently ignore elected representatives indicates the internal levels of distain and contempt for politicians and the ethos runs right to the very top of DIO.

The Power of Us

TAG know many of the community has raised their voices and concerns. Public voices helps keep the issues DIO SE trigger in sharp focus. DIO must be held to account for their decisions and be compelled to uphold the standards in public life.

From whatever angle, failing to respond to not one but two Council letters cannot be seen as meeting the minimum expectations. TAG have written to the local MP Ranil Jayawardena, pressing Jeremy Quin MP for some answers; seeking responses from Mr Dalton whilst pressing the issue of why DIO are empowered to ignore everyone – politicians and communities alike – and what is being done to change this completely unacceptable behavior.

If you find a lack of positive engagement from DIO disturbing, and the idea of unelected civil servants remaining unaccountable and enabled to ignore instructions, then do please take a moment to contact your MP:

Write to Them

At time of writing both Councils have written again to Mr Dalton with follow-up letters and emails. This is something that should have been unnecessary, and another good example of how DIO waste public time and money.

We will publish Mr Dalton’s reply – if one is every forthcoming – in due course.

For PRs Sake!

We do appreciate feedback from the MTB community on what is happening on the military lands – and in particular we really like to hear of any encounters with DIO’s Training Area Safety Marshals (TSM).

So we were delighted to hear of one positive outcome, when a TSM lent a mountain biker a tool to fix their bike and helped continue the ride.

This is the kind of collaboration and cooperation that makes the world a better place and we need more, not less, of it.

A TSM vehicle in Long Valley…encounters with them are rare given the area they are trying to manage

Regrettably its still too early to pop the champagne and celebrate a new, positive and engaged DIO.

After fixing the bicycle the TSM and rider had a friendly chat.

Sadly we do not have a recording (and we do encourage this) but the rider did share the gist of what was said. So we are going to pick apart and examine in more detail some of the statements the TSM made.

What follows is a breakdown of the issues and concerns with the TSM’s view:

Cycling is banned and MOD Police can fine you and sieze your bike

Both of these statements fail to recognise the 2019 agreement between DIO and TAG that legitimised cycling on the military lands – you can read it here. In the current byelaws DIO can issue a Section 8.3 authorisation permitting anything that is listed as illegal, and there is precedence for DIO doing exactly that when Mark Ludlow (DIO SE Security and Access) issued Farnham Ramblers with permission to walk in groups.

The original copy has been removed from the Ramblers website…but we kept a copy and you can read how Ramblers were given the green light by Mark Ludlow in 2014:

The 2014 date is significant – remember how DIO set about banning MTB at the same time?

There are plenty of nagging questions; Why does DIO refuse to acknowledge the 2019 agreement with cyclists? Why are TSMs still repeating out of date information? And why were the Ramblers able to secure permission and MTB not?

Mark Ludlow cannot deny such an agreement was made…as it was discussed with the Chair of TAG in his Longmoor office…then followed up with emails and subsequent publication. At no time have DIO sought to amend or revoke the agreement, so as far as TAG is concerned the deal stands.

Short answer is we don’t know why TSMs are failing to recognise the agreement but the working presumption is Mark Ludlow has failed to inform TSMs, or simply refuses to offer the same courtesy extended to Ramblers and recognise the agreement is very much valid.

On this point we consider it a failure of standards in public life to not acknowledge something that patently exists and have an active Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint against DIO and Mark Ludlow seeking formal, written recognition of the agreement for cyclists and securing legal certainty for all.

Cyclist must stick to the fire roads as cycling on single track is inherently dangerous and MOD will be sued by anyone hurting themselves.

Firstly, DIO had full sight of the published 2019 agreement, yet restrictions as to where cyclists were permitted to ride was not included, nor amendment(s) sought. As far as TAG are concerned single track is the place to ride and is more often multi-use and shared with walkers, who suffer no such restrictions.

Secondly, there is no evidence we are aware of that suggests single track is more dangerous than the fire roads. Indeed, there is a good argument to use single track as it avoids meeting vehicles, particularly in places like Long Valley.

According to DIO this single track is inherently dangerous and riders must not use it. TAG do not agree and consider such policy to be completely lacking in hard evidence and is a good example of failing to uphold standards in public life

As for MOD being subject to personal injury litigation by an MTB rider…this is utter nonsense. MOD are being sued by cyclists…but slippery roads, traffic barriers and wheelie bins were all cited as primary causes and military bases are the typical location.

No one, in spite of the thousands of hours ridden, has sued MOD for injury on Aldershot single track…we have collectively and individually “opted in” to the risks it might pose to take massive benefit from the joy riding the trails brings. To put it simply, single track is worth it.

For failing to use objective evidence to advise policy we have evidence of another failure by DIO to uphold standards in public life.

Hopefully in the future when the new bylaws are put in place it will allow cyclists to ride the fire roads

The 2019 agreement between TAG and DIO already permits greater use than just the fire roads, so a new set of byelaws that restrict us will be doomed to fail.

TAG oppose the idea of “fire roads only” on the simple grounds it will permit DIO to maintain a negative approach to cycling – there is a hard, embedded culture that will ignore (and has ignored) the byelaws and continue to use the single track.

All TAG seeks is parity with walkers and what they enjoy today – the freedom to roam – and nothing less will be as much unreasonable as unenforceable. To achieve parity with walkers will do nothing other than formalise how the lands are ridden today, nothing more and nothing less. There will be no mass MTB rampages through the heather or other senstive areas…things will just carry on as we use the existing network of routes, but we all get DIO and their massive risk adversion culture off our collective backs.

Persisting with restrictions on cyclists will empower DIO to maintain marginalisation. When set in the context of their overwhelming desire to fence in areas and permanently exclude everyone, it’s easy to see how DIO will use MTB as the excuse – blame the MTB community for riding off the fire roads and stick up more barbed wire topped deterrent fences. For evidence we need look no further than DIO’s willingness to apply collective punishment at Ash Ranges and use any and all means to fabricate justification to support subjective policy.

For these reasons TAG are calling for byelaws fit for purpose whereby recreational access is protected from the excesses of an unaccounable DIO.

DIO would be interested to know if an area could be used by MTB [for digging]

Of all the issues raised, this is perhaps most galling.

Back in 2019 Mark Ludlow solicited a report from TAG looking into the feasibility of having an area set aside for trail construction.

TAG volunteers duly met with a few diggers, scoped the suggested areas and worked up a plan into how we could work together. The report was authored and duly delivered to Mark Ludlow.

To date the report has neither been acknowledged nor responded to.

Therefore the answer is already on Mark Ludlow’s desk, yet two years later DIO are still asking the same questions.

Why would this be? Are DIO really interested in working on this?

TAG believe we are deep into egocentric decision making territory and bad faith engagement…to that end we have an active Parliamentary Ombudsman complaint against Mark Ludlow for failing to respond to the solicited report.

DIO are getting a lot of negative press…could you do a positive post on social media?

We would not consider for one minute holding DIO and its staff to account as negative press but see it as a civic duty to act, to hold public office holders to account for their actions, see unwelcome behaviour corrected and ensure civil servants meet the expectations of standards in public life.

One sad aspect of this encounter is the TSM thought it necessary to ask for a positive post. It highlights the depths DIO have reached in their standing with the local community, and a simple act of helping someone in distress must not become transactional, as good deeds are exchanged for a good news story.

A desire to help others at times of need is part of what makes us human, and is not something to be traded. That aside, we do really (like really, really) appreciate the efforts of the TSM and recognise the issues we all face are generated by the leadership and daft policy, not always the people at the sharp end.

If DIO really do need some positive PR then TAG can quickly act. Implementing the following changes will deliver DIO good news stories by the spadeful:

  • Reinstate access to Ash Ranges and create a warden scheme to work with the community.
  • Install the promised gates at Long Valley
  • Stop using DANGER signs to tell lies and comply with the Ministerial directive to keep Long Valley open when not in use.
  • Issue a formal notice under Section 8.3 confirming cyclists may use the lands and ensure TSMs are fully aware of its existence.
  • Work with TAG to implement the digging proposals.
  • Develop with TAG a long-term educational plan that helps civvies understand military training
  • Ensure Porridge Pots is accessible and add a gate at the northern boundary ensuring the strategic north/south route is restored in full.

Implementing the above could potentially negate the requirement to persue the Parlimentary Ombudsman complaints to their conclusion.

Above all, DIO must recognise there is a society and community that has deep involvement, respect and passion for the lands, and to start to work with them to make the world a better place. Furthermore, the almost unique and highly valued Section 2 of the byelaws – recreational access to all areas at all times when not in use – must become embedded thinking within DIO SE.

Then positive PR will not really be required…it will just be positive all round.

Until then, restoring long term trust in DIO will require a lot more than a fleeting glimpse of positive social media PR.

Kind Words… But No Action

In March 2020 DIO blamed COVID and locked the gates to 340 acres of land at Ash Ranges.

Fast forward to the present and the gates remain locked, except this time DIO have made it clear they are blaming local residents – a letter from Jeremy Quin MP (Minister for Defence Procurement) has been shared by Michael Gove MP informing us vandalism was costing too much.

You can read the full response here:

Instead of punishing the guilty and going after the criminals DIO have elected to impose collective punishment on an otherwise supportive community…a community that were being thanked by MOD Police for their work in a warden scheme.

Yes, you read that correctly.

There might just be a good reason the vandalism was historically lower:

In 2009 MOD Police were writing to local residents thanking them for helping reduce vandalism costs.

Nowadays local residents are more likely to be threatened with arrest or invited to the local police station for an under caution interview, such are the depths DIO have reached in managing community relations.

Disaster? Incompetent? Obstinate? Guilty as charged.

Ash Ranges has acres of safe space – ideal for recreation when not in use and plenty of residents continue to jump the fence when red flags are down

Flash the Taxpayer Cash

It’s easy to look at the headline figures in Quin’s letter, blame residents for breaking things and move on.

Except the figures do not tell the whole story and two sets of costs have been ignored.

Firstly, the quoted figures do not include the spend of £48,166.08 on upgrading the perimeter path. According to DIO this linear path is supposed to compensate for the loss of 340 acres of space and 10 miles of informal tracks and paths.

The path is now flooding and is reverting to a boggy mess while a perfectly good all weather track lies just inside the fence. The spend on maintenance is likely to be ongoing and the locals do not for one minute think the path a fair swap for 340 acres.

Secondly, the DIO figures lack any assessment of the value of outdoor recreation.

Being outdoors and taking exercise is proven to improve both physical and mental health and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport recognise there is a hard cash saving on NHS and GP services. The benefits of a healthy community – something the government is keen to promote – and reduced costs of healthcare are ignored by DIO…or maybe they just missed the memo?

Either way DIO do not measure value, focusing solely cost – we know this because no impact assessment was prepared ahead of closing off Ash Ranges. So whilst DIO will claim a gain and saving, wider society will pay more as the demand for healthcare heads upwards and the final bill is met by the NHS.

DIO can find the cash to upgrade a path and spend nearly £50k in an attempt to placate the community…but no consultation established if a path was needed or wanted. Even when historical evidence supplied by no less than MOD Police exists to demonstrate a warden scheme could work for all do DIO step back and engage?

No, not at all.

For some reason…We are reminded of the classic Blackadder quote:

If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.

Zero Action

Jeremy Quin kept his job during the recent reshuffle. We see this as a good thing; we have a Minister who finally recognises the strength of feeling:

“I can assure you that I am very aware of the strength of opinion and the desire of local residents and the Army to maintain what is a long and very positive neighbourly relationship”

But on the other hand we are faced with precisely zero action from Jeremy when it comes to accountability. DIO are enabled and empowered to persist with a policy of ignoring the Ministerial directive to keep Long Valley open when not in use, and failing to install the promised gates. Good neighbours do not act like an entire community is irrelevant, do they?

So we have a Minister who claims to understand a community and the passion we hold for the lands, but singularly and simultaneously fails to hold Mark Ludlow (DIO SE Security and Access) to account and ensure written commitments are delivered on the ground.

None of this bodes well for a set of byelaws that are fit for purpose, preserving and protecting recreational access. With closed car parks, locked gates and barbed wire topped deterrent fences the signals from DIO are clear; recreational users are unwelcome irrespective of the lands being in use.

The lack of accountability from Ministers may well result in a new set of byelaws that suit DIO perfectly with casual recreation reduced to when they can be bothered to unlock gates. So far Ministers have failed to ensure DIO comply with basics, so what chances do we have with a new legal framework?

Finally, we do not agree with the Minister when he claims:

While in the circumstances it is very hard to mitigate the issues raised around the TA [Closed area]
closure

This is classic over-thinking of a “problem”. The answer to reducing vandalism costs can be quickly resolved by instructing DIO to engage with the local community, reinstate access and start working together.

We know this works – MOD Police letter speaks for itself. This would be a win-win as mental and physical health benefits, reduce direct criminal costs and strengthen goodwill and collaboration between the army and civvies.

After reading this you feel pressing the Minister for some accountability and ensure DIO follow instruction and reinstate access to Ash Ranges then do please raise the matter with your local MP using this link:

Write to Them

Allowing DIO to carry on regardless – as if the community does not exist – may have more long-term consequences than DIO can imagine. Damage to the relationships, loss of goodwill and cooperation will undoubtely escalte if left unchecked.

In the meantime, we have raised the issues of DIO behaviour again with local MPs and we will report back shortly when a response is received.

Looking Back & Looking Forward

As one year draws to a close it’s a good time to look back at what has passed, and onwards to what is to come.

2018

2018 has seen a tentative meeting with DIO fizzle out to nothing, in spite of the meeting minutes recording further contact. We have witnessed the imposition of fences and locked gates when the lands behind them seem underused and empty. Granted the gates have been unlocked at times, but its fair to say 2018 has been a difficult year for access. We now wonder if the tentative meeting with DIO was not conducted with good faith, just a box ticking exercise? We will continue to remind MOD of their obligations to open the gates when the land is not in use for military training, and a lack of manpower to lock and unlock gates must not be used as an excuse to restrict or limit public access.

2019 And Beyond

Looking forward the community may well be faced with significant changes in 2019. If the planned review of the Bylaws that govern the land are on track then we will see the draft laws published for consultation. TAG have no idea what changes are planned, but with MOD in charge of authoring the laws we can predict who they will favour – and as we have seen with fences encroaching on access, MOD have demonstrated imposition is their preferred means and consultation with the local community as unnecessary. The laws will be subject to consultation, but will this be meaningful? Or a box ticking exercise?

We are all part of a community that shares a love of the Military Lands. We all need to get along and remember it might be a dog walker/jogger/cyclist/equestrian that could be the one who steps up and helps when things go wrong. Would anyone refuse to help or be helped by the others? No, of course we wouldn’t. Everyone I pass is greeted with a “Hi” or “Hello” and very few fail to return the greeting…helping a fellow rider with a broken chain or a dog walker locate their missing pet is all part of small gesture intended to make the world a slightly better place. The community is better for it.

So as we head into 2019 perhaps now more than ever the joggers, equestrians, dog walkers and MTB riders may be forced to work together for a greater good; ensuring the Bylaw review maintains or extends the right of recreation on the lands. The vast majority are not opposed in any way to military training and no one wants to disrupt troops at work. The TAG guidelines make it clear such activities take priority. But when the lands are empty of troops responsible recreation for all must not only welcomed, but also required for the physical and mental health of all of us.

It’s a bit of an old cliché, but it’s nice to be nice. Lets make 2019 a happier, more community spirited year. As we ride, it’s worth remembering that we are all ambassadors for the sport we love, and to be mindful of others who use the land too.

TAG Election Survey Results

As you may have seen on our Facebook page, TAG sent 133 letters to the candidates standing in tomorrow’s local elections asking them where they stand on recreational access to MoD land. The people elected tomorrow will have a significant voice in the forthcoming byelaw review that will determine how, when, and if, the public will be able to use the MoD lands. If you’ve not checked out the results of the TAG election survey – please have a look at our infographic and the individual results to see if your local candidates decided to reply, and what they said if they did.

election infographic_final.pngTAGAccessReportFinal20170901

Full candidate by candidate results can be found here https://tinyurl.com/tagsurveyresults

TAG and MOD – Tentative Progress

Here at TAG we tend to to post many updates or announcements, unless we really have news or information to share. Truth is, we would rather be out riding our bikes and not stuck in front of a keyboard…

But we do have some news, and feel its a good time to share with the MTB community.

Last month representatives from Cycling UK, British Horse Society, Hampshire Access Forum and TAG were invited to a meeting with DIO. The primary purpose of the meeting was to discuss access routes across the military training lands, routes that would be suitable for both horses and cyclists alike and open for use at all times.

Now we all know a few permissive tracks across the land are not going to really reflect how MTB riders use the land, but TAG are going to support them and their use for the benefit of all. There is the potential for wider permissive access and right now we have no firm commitment to share, but given the positive mood of the meeting TAG feel there is an opportunity the like of which we have never seen before.

The meeting was an opportunity to discuss other matters, to explore ways of making life easier for both the troops who train and the likes of MTB who ride on the land. It will probably come as no surprise the kind of behaviour and issues that give DIO the most concern are:

  • Digging of jumps, step ups etc.
  • Night riding and disturbing troops.

Both matters consumed around 40 minutes of the meeting, preventing us from moving onto more positive matters. TAG do understand the concerns raised.

Any digging activity ends up with two outcomes: The construction will be flattened and DIO will break off future meetings. This one is easy to fix: If you dig and build, now is the time to pause and put the shovel down.

For the record: There is a possible opportunity that an area will be set aside where digging and building will be permitted. To that end, if you dig and want to have a say in a possible location then please get in touch with TAG.

Night riding is another concern, but trickier to resolve. TAG have made it clear that communication is going to be the key here. We are convinced the MTB community will gladly change a planned ride route if its known troops are out at night. Our recent experience of the film crew at Eelmoor has given us confidence, and for those who change their route we say “Thank you for your support”. For now, do please remember the TAG code of conduct while we see if progress cannot be made on on letting the public know where and when land is in use.

After five years of disengagement with the MTB community DIO now recognise there is mutual benefit in talking to TAG and we really welcome and appreciate the shift in policy. We are at the beginning of a long journey and things will take time, but TAG do feel we are heading in a very positive direction that will benefit all.

The Countdown Begins

As an advocacy group for mountain biking across the Military Lands, TAG has a simple goal: To ensure cyclists have the right to use the lands for responsible recreation when said lands are not in use by the military.

This can be achieved in two ways: By the Commanding Officer granting such permission, or by a review of the Byelaw.

TAG have been given notice by Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) that the timeline is now in place for the Aldershot and District Military Lands Byelaws for the following areas:

  • Aldershot Long Valley
  • Aldershot Garrison
  • Hawley, Minley and Camberley
  • Pirbright Camp, Ash Ranges and Bisley Ranges.

All remaining areas of military land in the area will be subject to a separate byelaw, and work will commence on that area as soon as the new byelaws have been made.

DIO will be drafting the new laws before putting them out for public consultation. From the documents supplied there is no indication if interested parties and stakeholders will have any say on what the byelaws actually say before the public get their chance to raise objections.

Public consultation is scheduled to begin in June 2019 and the new byelaw is expected to be signed into law by February 2020.

This is an opportunity for the community to ensure the lands remain open to everyone when training is not underway. It is likely the byelaws governing the lands will not be reviewed for another 40 years so it is vital they maintain, enhance and reflect exactly how the public wish to use them.

Other military land byelaws have been reviewed and cycling has become a permitted form of recreation. This is within MOD’s own guidelines. TAG expect nothing less than full access for cyclists in the Aldershot and Longmoor areas too.

We shall be preparing a full response in due course, but in the meantime it is vital that we have as much support as possible from local MPs and councillors, who can bring influence and pressure on DIO to finally recognise their own guidance and policy documents. It is therefore vital we have representation that is supportive to the cycling community. TAG will be seeking and publishing the views of every candidate on this subject in the forthcoming local elections.

Remember, this is close to once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set the laws fairly for all. We have much to gain.

TAG MTB Survey – The Results

Firstly, on behalf of Trail Action Group, I would like to say a huge “Thank you” to everyone who took the time to respond to the recent survey. We all think it is vitally important that the Aldershot and District lands are recognised for the immense value they bring to the local cycling community and the results now allow everyone to quantify and understand the deep feelings we all hold for the land, and the respect for those who work and train there.

At 60 pages the report is quite long, so if this feels  little daunting we would recommend the Summary and Appendix 8.3 are worthy of reading in full.

Appendix 8.3 contains the summary of where we gave the chance for mountain bikers to explain why accessing the land was important. This section was written by the respondents, in their own words. The responses do not provide any hard data or facts, but does convey the emotive passion, the joy and pleasure that the lands bring to our lives. Reading them is a real delight and its heartwarming to find that so many share a common, respectful view and understand the benefits access brings.

Finally, TAG would like to thank the cyclists and unicyclist who posed for the images that illustrate the report.

The full report is in PDF format and may be dowloaded here:

TAGAccessReportFinal20170901