Taken for Fools

Back in April many in the local community received a letter – ironically dated April 1st – from local MP Ranil Jayawardena.

The letter contained two highly relevant assurances regarding access and use of Long Valley:

  • More access gates and work had been commissioned to address this
  • Officials have been directed to ensure gates are open for public access when not in use.

You can read a copy of the letter here:

DIO have not met either political commitment.

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.

The red arrows indicate where we think the extra gates are required. Please get in touch if we have missed any – we can add them to the list.

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.

A gate is needed here. Even when not in use locals resort to climbing the locked vehicle gate. This track is marked on the 1888 Ordnance Survey map and has been in use for decades.

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.

With the Long Valley signs now demonstrated to lie more than tell the truth the local community have elected to express their frustration with some plain speaking stickers

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.

Based on sound evidence this sign at Long Valley can be accepted as telling the truth. Contrast this with the DANGER signs, which for most of the time display misleading or irrelevant information and are perpetuating lies.

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.

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.

Time for Change – Byelaws Fit For Purpose

A law that preserves recreational use must also protect access. Without protection the lands will remain at risk of imposed fencing and greater restrictions.

Prior to 1854 the lands were open and considered vital for the recreation and general good health of the population. In 1854 the army were awarded the Aldershot lands for the purposes of military training. For the next 164 years recreation was permitted whenever the lands were not in use for training. In 1976 public access for recreation became enshrined in law;  it is clear that military training takes precedent but when not being used for this purpose the community must be at liberty to enjoy it. It is a shared space, for military and civilians alike. 

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

In 2018 the simple principle of recreational access was unilaterally and arbitrary changed by Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) as they undertook a program of fence construction. Public exclusion, irrespective of training activity, has become the de facto approach and is in contravention to a 2003 recommendation that asked the DIO to form closer working relationships with the public.

Since 2018, 1540 acres of the lands have been permanently fenced off, excluding access even when the lands are not in use. Over time, left unchecked, there is nothing to stop the entire area being fenced off and lost forever. The lands are a highly valued and vital space for maintaining and enhancing both physical and mental health. The DIO must not be allowed to arbitrarily and unilaterally remove access via a series of stealth measures.

We are therefore calling for a new byelaw, one that preserves recreation and protects access for the public in the way that was always intended. A law that protects recreation alone is not fit for purpose and will fail the community as more lands are fenced and become no-go zones.

TAG have prepared a position paper clearly stating what changes are necessary and you can download a copy here:

The consultation period for the byelaw has not yet started but we must not wait. The DIO method of ‘consultation’ is to tell people what has been decided, not to invite comment and to ignore suggestions for improvement. We seek real change and the new byelaw must work for all parties and preserve the space for the local community and future generations.

If there is just one positive thing you can do right now it is this; write to your MP now telling them that you support the position paper and insist the military lands remain open and accessible for recreation when not in use.

You can find and write to your local MP using the www.writetothem.com website.