By Simon Brown, Chair, Trail Action Group
Before delving into what will be a challenging topic I would like to take this opportunity to wish you and your staff a very Happy New Year.
Trail Action Group was set up around 10 years ago with the aim of retaining access to the military training lands for cycling. On talking over the Chairman’s role I wanted to build on the previous negotiations with DIO. My goal was to enable and encourage responsible mountain biking on the lands defined by the Aldershot and District Military Lands Byelaws and to correct the anomaly restricting cycling that was added in the 1976 byelaw review.
Over the last few weeks I have realised the matter goes far deeper and the issues we face go beyond recreational enjoyment but start to question how public bodies function, set policy and are accountable which collectively goes to the core of life in a modern and liberal democracy.
It has become apparent that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation South East (DIO SE) are operating against the wider interests of the society they serve, are enacting policy that is not fit for purpose and remains unaccountable for their actions. Neither the checks and balances within the chain of command nor has political intervention offered necessary relief. I write these words not with glee or malice nor lightly, but the current situation is far beyond what the local community should expect as a minimum level of service from a public body. My reasons are outlined below:
When setting policy, particularly a public facing one, it must be guided by robust evidence. The evidence should be open and available for scrutiny and validation. Existing recreational access policy does not adhere to this path leading to certain groups being marginalised or excluded completely. DIO SE have been pressed repeatedly to produce and provide evidence to support the closure of the Ash Ranges Complex and to also demonstrate why cyclists must be treated as a special case. In both cases no evidence has been provided. Until recently cyclists were told the various wildlife designations (SSSI and SPA status) tied DIOs hands and prevented wider permission. After pointing out cyclists were not singled out as a special case in the laws quoted DIO SE have not repeated this assertion. Other groups – specifically equestrians and The Ramblers – have been given written authority (under the existing byelaws) to enjoy recreation but cyclists are treated to markedly different treatment when compared to other user groups. It is also worth noting other local SSSI and SPA sites do not object to cyclists and cycling.
The reasons cited for the closure of the Ash Ranges Complex – cost of vandalism and safety – have been rightly questioned by local residents. To date no quantitative or qualitative evidence to support DIO SE assertions has been provided yet the area remains closed. When not in use MOD police patrol the area issuing “Warning Off” notices meaning otherwise law-abiding citizens – people who are very supportive of those who serve and train – are reduced to the status of a common criminal. If policy is not being set by evidence, what is being used to set recreational access policy? The answer I believe is twofold; a risk adverse culture combined with a personal crusade against recreational users and in particular certain groups are singled out for distinctly separate treatment.
To deal with the question of overbearing personal crusade is more straightforward. Without direct evidence the principles of Occam’s Razor guide us; when all other reasonable explanations have been discounted what remains is more rather than less likely correct. I am at a loss to explain or accept why this situation is tolerated but it points to significant failings in the internal operations of DIO; that of effective leadership and an open and just culture that permits lower ranking officials to call into question decisions taken further up the chain. The latter is to be expected if junior grades are subject to annual appraisal and raising difficult questions prejudice the promotional chances. The former is inexcusable.
Risk aversion within DIO SE is prevalent. Everything is seen as potentially dangerous which results in all roads lead to the singular outcome of public liability and litigation. Risk extends beyond the rational nature of military training and goes as far as the surreal with tree roots and holes in the ground as good reason to see the public coming to harm. I feel for any civil servant who sees harm to their career prospects by seeing danger prevalent but this completely overlooks why many use the lands. The wild open spaces and the (near zero) risks they pose offer an escape and presents challenges civilisation cannot compete with especially during the recent pandemic. The evidence as gathered in the recent survey conducted by the Byelaws Review team points to a different conclusion. If risk and harm were everything DIO SE describe they would be knee deep in litigation as 59,000 hours of recreation per week could potentially include a large number of twisted ankles (those tree roots) or broken bones (falling down holes). The FOIA requests also reveal no recreational mountain biker has litigated against MOD (the entire UK wide estate – let alone DIO SE) for an accident on the Aldershot Lands. Risk alone is being applied to set policy. Balance of risk respecting the wider societal and community benefits recreational access provides is absent or severely underrepresented.
Communication & Engagement
For such a large estate in regular use by the public the level of DIO SE communication is close to zero. The entrances to the lands have signs intended to instil fear and do nothing to explain the primary purpose of the land and the expected behaviour for recreational users. The local Wildlife Trusts do a more effective job! At another level DIO SE will modify or amend policy and neglect to inform representatives such as TAG with whom they have had detailed discussions. Contrary to the July 2019 agreement between TAG and DIO SE have been stopping cyclists and informing them riding was against the byelaws but permitted on the made-up tracks. The first time TAG heard of this was from a local rider. DIO SE have clearly instructed representatives to act yet neglect to inform anyone else, including the very body representing cyclists. On the basic level mistakes are made. Since the fencing was installed the commitment to keep Long Valley open and available for recreation when not in use is not being met and the matter has been raised with DIO SE. Their response? To inform that, yes, Long Valley was in use (not according to the evidence on the ground) and that it was booked and busy during Christmas and New Year. No one in DIO SE stopped to question why a unit had booked to train on Christmas Day and no one checked to realise the quoted source for these bookings was November. Engaging with DIO SE is equally challenging and they will refer to the Local Access Forums and Parish Councils as exemplar. Neither are effective in holding DIO SE to account and with the exception of a few councillors the benefits of recreational use of the lands are unknown or not understood. Engagement with TAG is strained. I do know DIO SE see me as two-faced but this overlooks two basic principles; measurement is best performed by deeds and action not words, and when the facts change so does my opinion. Some positive engagement has happened in the past and did briefly reappear in 2019 with DIO SE commissioning two reports from TAG. It has subsequently been proven (though FOIA) that one (Ash Ranges Anti Vandal Trail) had been pre-empted by a DIO SE 2015 decision. Neither report delivered as requested by TAG (the second was a trail building proposal) have been formally acknowledged or responded. We are still waiting for a satisfactory explanation as to why it is acceptable to treat volunteers in this manner. Communication from DIO SE can be summarised as weak-to-non-existent and engagement restricted to groups who do not challenge. The issue of Long Valley access remains a case in point – it needed political intervention to compel DIO to engage with TAG, and even then needed more pressure to ensure the lands were available when not in use. To ensure a response is forthcoming, TAG now include local councillors and politicians in all emails to DIO.
With no independent evidence DIO SE statements are challenged until proven. Every statement issued by DIO SE is now subject to a FOIA request, either directly or with third parties. A rolling list of proven false statements is maintained, and the list runs to 37 items ranging from cost of vandalism (claimed £170k – unproven) via justification for fencing (AAIB cyclists – no corroboration) to reasons for fencing (fly tipping – near zero incidence). Absence of evidence creates a lack of trust. DIO SE are either unaware or do not care. However, for a public body to be in this position should be cause for concern. This is in itself worrying in a democracy that depends on trust to function.
DIO SE appears to treat the local community – the recreational users of the lands – with contempt. We are seen as nothing but a liability and a problem that needs resentful management whilst the simple principles of Section 2 of the byelaws (casual recreational access when not in use) remains unacknowledged, ignored or actively worked against. But we are more than just families out for a walk, cyclists, equestrians, joggers, dog walkers or mountain bikers. We are citizens and very much part of a large and vibrant community that cares passionately about the open spaces, wildlife and troops who train on the lands. Over the years we have seen a gradual and incremental loss of recreational access with car parks closed, fences erected and barriers placed in the way of historically established routes. At the extreme we are expected to accept 170 years of recreational access denied without good reason. All of these changes are implemented against a backdrop of the government message recommendation for citizens to take responsibility for their health and get active. There is sound evidence that shows a healthy lifestyle leads to reduced visits to GPs and the mental health services. Overall 59,000 hours of recreational access per week brings a massive benefit to NHS services yet this value – until now hidden – is ignored by DIO. Any savings on reported vandalism costs at Ash will be wiped out over time as mental and physical health in the community inevitably declines. There is always a wider cost and society always pays. Policy is set blind and without evidence. Personal crusades set without sound evidence has been allowed to fester even when direct political instruction is given and leads to demonstrable dissent and harm within the local community. The 1997 white paper setting out what became the FOI law observed “…unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making”. 24 years later the concerns the white paper raised and sought to address persist. Those responsible – DIO SE leadership – should be ashamed of such a position within the local community but they alone cannot carry the full blame. The chain of command remains responsible and I will point out with respect that the buck very much stops at the desk of the politicians – hence why I am writing to you now. We now say “Enough”.
For such a long set of issues the resolutions are straightforward:
· Treat DIO SE like any failing hospital or school and apply “Special Measures” until such time
· accountability and trust is restored
· Bypass the chain of command and bring DIO SE into direct and persistent political accountability
· Ensure DIO SE commit to and work with representative user groups willing to challenge
· Reinstate public access at Ash Ranges with immediate and urgent effect
· Issue clear guidance on equitable cycling policy
· Instil an “open and just” culture to permit junior staff to speak without fear or favour
· To revaluate all evidence and reset risk appraisal based on reality
We accept that these will be difficult to implement. DIO SE have long been permitted to exercise power without accountability and there will be push back and objection. However painful, it will be necessary for the avoidance greater conflict and erosion of goodwill towards those who serve. Please rest assured you can rely on TAG for support and assistance. Set against this backdrop we see no reason to think why the forthcoming amended byelaws and consultation will be fit for purpose. DIO SE have pressed ahead with a cycling policy that appears to be closely aligned with a new byelaw provision intended continue unequal access to that of walkers, ramblers and horse riders in advance of the public consultation. For campaigners such as TAG, the evidenced lack of competent approach to policy is frustrating. However, it allows campaigners to exploit the weakness offered by lack of evidence policy. We would rather go up against the unprepared than a department founded on coherent evidenced based policy & effective communication. Persistent bad faith and blunder present ample opportunity for legal challenge and Judicial Review. We will do whatever it takes to maintain casual access whilst remaining willing to work with a reformed DIO committed to “good faith” engagement with the express purpose of achieving joint goals. These goals include ensuring troops using the lands remain undisturbed at all times. Legal challenge would never be preferred but this letter could be “Exhibit A” if and when legal challenge is deemed necessary. All we seek was freedom to responsibly use the lands when not in use – as per Section 2 of the byelaws. This should include mountain biking. The sport is a release, an escape, and a means to elevate and maintain personal fitness away from roads and the urban environment. The lands are a place to leave stress behind and recharge one’s mental and physical resolve to cope with whatever life dishes out. All of this has extreme personal and societal value. Never did we find myself confronting an organisation that was prepared to challenge democratic accountability and ignore political direction to achieve its highly questionable goals. Nor did we expect to encounter persistent bad faith and blunder, as the organisation seems incapable of learning from past errors. The issues DIO SE triggered go far deeper than recreational mountain biking but if it’s necessary to tackle the wider issues for the benefit of the wider recreational community then so be it.
On behalf of TAG, yours sincerely
Simon Brown – Chair, Trail Action Group