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.

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.