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