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.

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.

Revealed – Byelaws Intent

Finally, after many delays the new Aldershot byelaws may be revealed and the review to commence. They have been “imminent” for a long time and twice start dates have been suggested…only to consultation to fail to start.

But back in December DIO let slip their intent and their plans for the byelaws and recreational access was revealed.  You can read the minutes here in section 2.

It does not make comfortable reading and directly contradicts the repeated Ministerial assurances…it is not the MOD’s intention to limit lawful use… asserted again only last week in a letter to local residents.  

Protection? Or Problem?

From what we know, DIO are intending to define two distinct designations:

Protected Areas that are closed to unauthorised persons and;

Controlled Areas where access is only permitted when the area is not being used for military training.

Our reading is that today (setting aside for one moment DIO’s apparent disregard for Section 2 of the current byelaws) all the areas we enjoy now are likely to fit into the Controlled Areas definition. 

The greatest concern is Protected Areas.

DIO go on to explain why these areas are deemed necessary:

ML provided background information, explaining the problems involved with balancing wider public access and the legislative requirement to protect SSSI, SPA and other ecological areas across the estate.

Without sight of the proposed bylaws we do not have a clear picture, but with DIO’s “hostile environment” approach towards recreational access (closed car parks, ignoring the 2019 agreement on cycling as two examples) coupled with an unwillingness to respect Ministerial commitments, we feel that a reasonable summary is that the presence of wildlife-protecting designations will be used to prevent the recreational access at all times when not in use. 

The presence of wildlife-protecting designations will be used (abused) to prevent the recreational access at all times when not in use. Protected Areas will be imposed under the banner of protecting wildlife to permanently remove our access to the lands irrespective of actual use for military training.

Protected Areas could be imposed under the banner of protecting wildlife to permanently remove public access to the lands irrespective of actual use for military training. 

This raises the question “How much of the lands enjoy current protection?” Let us consider the current situation. 

Access in 2018

Until the fencing went in at Long Valley and Porridge Pots, and Ash Ranges was open when not in use recreational access can be illustrated by this map:

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

The spaces in light red represent approximately 12,500 acres of open space that, under the stated intent of Section 2 of the Aldershot Byelaws, are open for recreation at all times when not in use.

Access Today

Fast forward to 2021 and we can see some changes:

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

Based on the experience at Ash Ranges DIO will close access with impunityand then refuse to engage with the public leaving the local community reduced toresorting to a potential legal challengeand demonstrates DIO’s attitude and example as a good neighbour. 

Long Valley is a case in point; It took 18 months of audit and political lobbying to see DIO partially meet Ministerial assurances of the land being available for recreation when not in use for military training. This is an ongoing issue and TAG have an open complaint with examples of extended periods of closure being applied when the lands are empty. 

The locations of closed car parks are not marked but the intention is clear; DIO do not want recreational users on the lands and are prepared to ignore Section 2 of the byelaws and Ministerial directives to achieve that aim. 

SSSI Protected Areas

If the stated intent of Protected Areas is the creation of authorised access only nature reserves, just how much space is at stake?

Using the DEFRA Magic Map Application online tool allows anyone to view all sorts of information about the natural world with an Ordnance Survey map as a background – you can check it out yourself here.

We were interested in two things; Aldershot Military Lands and wildlife designations, such as Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Here’s what it revealed:

Aldershot training areas with SSSI overlaid as green hatching

Therefore the short answer to “how much” is “pretty much all of it. To the north the military lands butt up against the trails of Swinley Forest, which like its military neighbour is designated SSSI. 

If DIO are permitted to close recreational access to the lands to “protect SSSI, SPA and other ecological areas across the estate” then will the Crown Estate follow suit?

Probably not, but not shown on the map are other areas that benefit from SSSI protection AND freely allow public access:

  • Fleet Pond
  • Eversley Wood
  • Yateley Heath Wood
  • Yateley Common
  • Bagshot Heath
  • Wildmoor Heath
  • Blackwater Valley SSSI
  • Heath Lake SSSI

There are plenty of cases and spaces where people and wildlife can and do mix,

Based on the experience at Ash Ranges DIO will close access with impunityand then refuse to engage with the public leaving the local community reduced to resorting to a potential legal challenge and clearly demonstrates DIO’s attitude and example as a good neighbour. 

Potential Losses

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

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

The concerns is that over a period of time DIO would have the potential and firm legal basis to remove massive areas that today are free to enjoy with responsible recreation when not in use for military training.

Even when constrained by existing byelaws and political instruction DIO cannot be trusted as shown with spending £36,000 on 820m of fence at Long Valley to protect a “high value training area” but what protection does Long Valley need when faced with nothing more than recreational use? Just how can public funds be spent when the impact is a loss of access at all times irrespective of use and there is zero consideration for public access in the plan? 

The Data. The Facts.

IIt is disappointing to conclude public exclusion is DIO’s intent. From the Byelaws Review Recreational Surveys  (You can read them here: Surrey Heath, Aldershot and North East Hampshire) we know very few are a “single activity” user of the lands…dog walking one day, cycling the next…and 30% of respondents listed “wildlife watching” as part of theirenjoyment of the lands. On this basis it feels wrong to exclude people from the landscape, but the experience from Ash Ranges is indicative of an uncaring DIO.

But then again, should we really be surprised? Towards the latter half of last year DIO went to great lengths to explain to TAG why cyclists must stick to the fire roads – the quoted reason was it was “driven by the requirements of wildlife legislation” backed up with them supplying a copy of Natural England’s document   Scientific research into the effects of access on nature conservation: Part 2: access on bicycle and horseback  tto support their arguments.

For those who care about the lands its an interesting read, if a little light on relevant evidence. TAG do not understand why DIO forwarded such a document with so much positive to say about cycling. 

TAG were left wondering why DIO forwarded such a document as there was as much positive to say about cycling. The report acknowledged damage to ground nesting bird nests by cyclists is rare and other recreational users likely responsible for harming sand lizard eggs, to name but two relevant points.

TAG found the document encouraging but when we shared our enthusiasm with DIO they denied that the document would form or guide policy.

If the damage to SSSI is so great then why not prosecute those responsible today? DIO have acknowledged such laws and powers exist, yet cannot or will not see them applied to protect the space – something we would all support. To claim the lands require greater protectionwhilst not taking action under the currently available laws is disingenuous. 

The truth is no one bothers to ride on the really sensitive areas. They are physically hard work and when faced with literally hundreds of alternative tracks and trails there is no point when its easy to get from A to B on any number of established and often narrow (less harm) routes.

Summary and Action

The devil of the new byelaws will very much lie in the details of what they say and what power(s) it gifts to DIO. We have only seen a hint of what is possible, but clearly it flies directly in the face of every political and Ministerial assurance to otherwise limit or restrict recreational access.

The minutes of the meeting may be an expression of what powers they think are needed…or it is already in the draft byelaw. 

We do not know for sure but we do know that DIO is unwilling to engage with TAG. It requires constant political attention and this is both tedious and expensive in everyone’s time. TAG has resorted to maintaininga “DIO Statement Fact Checking Sheet” whereby every utterance is subject to close examination for evidence of the truth. Currently the list stands at 58 entries and it makes disappointing reading both from a taxpayer and public user perspective. Collated by TAG and the Ash Ranges residents behind Save our Spaces the document will be published shortly and allow the public to reach their own conclusions. 

Based on this we are very hesitant to believe DIO meet all of the seven principles for public bodies, as set out in the Nolan Report – more on this very soon.

We are also keenly aware of just how hostile DIO are towards recreation today. A byelaw that enhances and enables the loss of recreational space will see the takeover and loss of space complete.

What can we do? DIO do seem to ignore politicians but we know they do not like being held to scrutiny

Please write to your MP and make it absolutely clear you do not support any attempt to remove casual recreational access when the lands are not in use for military training.

As ever you can use the following link:

Write to your MP – Raise your concerns

Denied Access – Fencing and DIO

One aspect of the military lands we cherish is the freedom to roam when they are not in use for military training. The responses to the byelaws survey show this is a widely held view and that casual access is seen as a valuable resource for mental and physical health by the local community.

This value is eroded when access restrictions such as fences or total exclusion are imposed especially when the lands remain empty and unused by the military. 

We have pressed both DIO and MOD to explain what powers they are exercising to erect fences to limit and block access when the lands are not in use. To date we have not received a satisfactory answer and they are now refusing to engage further.

DIO refer these barriers to access as “Deterrent Fences“. They work 24/7 365 days a year deterring responsible recreation at all times irrespective of wether the land is being used for training, or not. These fences are the polar opposite of the often repeated political mantra stating there is “no intention to further restrict public access”.

To date over £250,000 of public money has been spend on recreational deterrent at Long Valley alone.

The Legal View

Recently TAG received a piece of pro bono legal advice from a top law firm. They were asked to examine the Aldershot byelaws, in particular Section 2 (recreational when not being used for military training) and were asked what powers this gave DIO to block access.

It’s legally technical but DIO do have the power to restrict access but only when the lands are subject to extended and heavy use for military training, typically on a 24hrs a day/7 days a week /365 days a year basis. 

In areas such as Keogh and Gibraltar Barracks fencing for security makes sense. These areas are indeed subject to year-long use.

For the remainder of the training estate the legality of fencing and restrictions are less clear. There are no areas subject to heavy use with Long Valley, Ash Ranges and Porridge Pots seeing extended periods where the military are absent, yet the gates remain locked. In Long Valley the lack of gates along the southern, northern and western boundaries  are causing access difficulties irrespective of use. Here deterrent fences extend for 2.25 and 1 mile respectively, blocking access (and exit) at all times.

We know the courts and judges don’t generally think that the legislature includes meaningless words in statutes. We can conclude from “when not being used for military purposes” that these words are intended to convey purpose and intent and would not be added without good reason – to protect access.

Powers Exceeded

Simply, there is no other reason – apart from military use – that can close access and the lands must be subject to heavy use to fully justify fences or complete loss of access.

We believe DIO have overstepped their powers and that erecting fences and loss of access when not in use for military training are incompatible with the moral and legal intent of the byelaws. 

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

Nor do we believe it’s the first time DIO have shown disregard for the law, with a claim for breach of copyright and issues with data protection legislation expected to start soon.

In the short term we will continue to press the case with DIO. Over the last three years we have seen loss of access when the lands are empty and we are approaching the first anniversary of the closure of Ash Ranges. We believe it is high time these errors are corrected.

The Long View

This raises longer-term concerns.

Last year TAG called for byelaws that were fit for purpose and offered protection against loss of recreational access. It now appears protection has been inherent, yet seemingly ignored by DIO.

Can an organisation that blocks access without good reason, and on the face of it disregard the law, be considered fit for purpose to deliver and work within byelaws that preserves and protects recreational access? 

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

Over the years DIO has been increasingly hostile to casual recreation, going the extra mile to make access as difficult as possible with fencing and car park closures making it clear that the contents of the byelaw consultation will need very careful review. 

We fully respect the needs of the army and understand their training always must take priority…no one would want to disrupt those who serve…but as the byelaw makes clear when the lands are empty they must be easy to access and permit recreation for all, not just those who are willing to climb a fence.

Time for Action

If fences and loss of access have impacted you do please take a moment to write to your MP and raise your concerns. This issue is currently on the political agenda and your voice will count. Writing adds to the numbers seeking accountability and helps us press politicians for accountability and the changes we seek.

You use this link to quickly pen an email to your MP:

Write To Them

Simply explain the value of access and what it means…and ask why DIO are permitted block access at all times even if the lands are not in use…and when the byelaws says otherwise.

Time for Change – Byelaws Fit For Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Logging the Lands

Logging work has started again on the Military Lands and this news is rarely well received by the mountain biking community. The work takes a few weeks at most but many see the work as doing long-term damage to the forest and the trails we love. Its even been suggested the logging is deliberately intended to trash where we ride. These views are understandable. However there is always a differing view and TAG thought it was time to have a look at the issues.

The trails are being trashed.

On the face of it, yes they are. But rest assured its only temporary and in time the lands will recover and the scars vanish. Some of us in TAG can remember the last time the forest was logged…it was 1990 or thereabouts and we now struggle to remember the damage done.

Our favourite regular routes were utterly wrecked.

Trails come and trails go. Routes used in the 1980s have persisted and some have vanished. The forest and heath may seem a very static and unchanging place but its always changing, mostly on a natural timescale. And for this reason logging and clearance is necessary – the pine forest would come to dominate everything and with that we would lose natural diversity.

It’s also worth noting that historical logging – done decades ago – opened up parts of the forest we now use. The extraction trails carved by the logging vehicles have become new routes and trails in their own right. It just needs a little time and patience and there will be new routes opening up. We need to see the long-term opportunity rather than the short-term damage.

Why leave the cut branches lying around?

This stuff – the brash – is a right PITA to try and ride over. No one likes it – MTB or Army – but leaving it behind does help spread the weight of the logging vehicles and in the long term returns some nutrients to the soil. Ultimately, it costs more to remove than let rot, so its left behind. Burning the stuff is one way to get rid of the mess, but this just adds more CO2 to the planet’s atmosphere and reduces air quality. Whilst leaving it to rot ultimately results in the release of CO2, the process takes much longer than burning and at least a portion of the CO2 is locked into the vegetation that the rotting matter nourishes.

This is environmental vandalism. They are wrecking the forest!

It certainly looks brutal, but clearing the forest is nothing new.

It’s worth stopping for a moment and thinking how the heaths were formed. The lowland heaths have been around for at least 3,500 years when humans decided to stop widespread hunting, cleared the area by burning and started to graze animals. The lowland heaths are a product of human intervention, and as such become a rare habitat that needs tweaking and caring for.  If you cycle across Ash Ranges – huge area of heath – you can see tiny pine trees pushing up through the heather. Do nothing and trees and scrub will invade and take over.

By clearing and thinning the tree canopy areas of the forest floor receive more sunlight and letting other wildlife have a chance and stops the heather from being crowded out.

SBrown-20190215-0006

The open vistas of lowland heath are very much man-made.

MOD just wants MTB to go away. This is another way to get us off the land.

TAG does not agree with the MOD, or more specifically DIO, policy towards cycling on the Aldershot Military lands. The current approach goes against their own internal policy document and recommendations. With respect to any policy restricting recreational access TAG always will oppose unnecessary, unreasonable or draconian restrictions. However, when it comes to actually caring for the lands MOD does a pretty good job.

It’s very easy to see everything through the narrow perspective of mountain biking but the conservation work done by MOD helps preserve and protect the lands and keep them valuable for things other than houses, which here in the southeast is no mean feat.

TAG have spoken to the people actually logging the lands and they were really clear; there is no policy to trash trails for the sake of it. They are there to thin and log trees and are not going to be looking to add to their workload.

But they still trashed the trails!

Have a look at the pile of logs in this photo:

SBrown-20190129-0001

It has taken nearly 30 years, but this pile of pine logs is slowly disappearing.

The pile of pine was logged sometime around 1990 and used to reach way over 6’ in height. In the early 90s a certain rider by the name of Martyn Ashton used to practice riding over it whilst I watched and wondered how he did it? That round of logging in the 90s saw some trails go, but only for a few months.

Now the pile has nearly gone. It’s rotting away and has become a source of food for the local wildlife. Sure, its taken a few decades but a 6’ pile of pine is going to take a while to disappear. Give it 12 months and the signs of logging and thinning will start to fade – this can already be seen in areas that were logged in 2017 & 2018.

What about the wildlife?

The lowland heaths and sandy well-drained soils not only make excellent mountain biking but also for wildlife. Adders, deer, woodpeckers, ground nesting birds and lizards all call it home and spotting any one of these on a ride is a huge bonus.

Ask a rider why they ride the lands and you will never get the same answer, but in the TAG report (2017) a fair few respondents listed being close to nature and wildlife as a very good reason to get out of the house and enjoy the lands.

If you are still not convinced, then consider this: land being considered special and protected for wildlife helps keep the housing developers off the land. With cash strapped MOD, someone in Whitehall must have eyed the lands for sale…only to be told “Can’t do it – SSSI”.

Hi everyone,

As you may be aware 6 months ago TAG wrote a position paper setting out what we saw as the potential management options for MTBing on MoD land around Aldershot. We did this primarily to set our cards out on the table and to better understand MoD’s official position.

We have now had a response from MoD which is attached to the bottom of this post. As you will see, whilst it is not a wholly negative response, it does not significantly move the discussion towards sustainable use of MoD land by MTBers.

So, what are the next steps for TAG – there are three areas we intend to pursue:

  • Continue to be available to the MoD if and when they decide they wish to engage with the MTB users.
  • Provide information to MTBers of any news or information that will encourage sustainable use of the land, for example by promoting the Code of Conduct
  • Act as a key lobby group when the Aldershot Military Lands Byelaw review is undertaken to formally provide submissions advocating legal recognition of cyclist use of the land beyond the current restriction to byeways and made up roads.

Whilst TAG appreciates this isn’t great news, we will continue to pursue the above areas with vigour. We would of course welcome any feedback from MTBers on the position paper and MOD’s response.

Thank you for your support,

TAG

Mountain Biking on the Aldershot Military Land

DIO Response to TAG Paper