By Carl Cookson
2020 will always be remembered as a year of frustration. COVID-19 has had such a dramatic impact on the world and our community. But in the frustration, you see glimmers of hope.
The community, based at St. Marys, has been one of those glimmers. The church has always readily assisted those in need, and it was great to see that we came together to support those who were isolating or needed more support than usual.
My biggest frustration last year was the abrupt closure of Ash Ranges. It came in April, just as we discovered what lock-down meant and had to live with the reality that we would not be able to exercise (as we are encouraged to) in this vast space. For hundreds of years, the whole community had used the now closed area to exercise, socialise, and educate.
Frustration continued when, as a community, we reached out to the MOD and Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) (the government organisation responsible for all military estate) and met with silence. No one wanted to talk to us about why.
Finally, in August, reasons started to emerge. In a presentation to the local press and Ash Parish Councillors, three claims were made to support this community space’s closure.
Firstly, the cost of repair due to vandalism was high. No supporting documentation backed up this claim. We asked, via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, for the list of the vandalism incidents and what cost is attributed to each. A simple request, you would assume, as the MOD quoted the figure. Finally, after months of delays and appeals, I received this statement from the MOD in December.
“I have also determined that the costs … were based on corporate knowledge of such events, and have been advised that there is no recorded information held on how the actual figure was calculated.”
Secondly, the number of training hours lost was high, with no detail given. Another simple request, someone would have had a list to create a figure. After months of delays and challenges, I received this statement from the MOD.
“However, I have been advised that MOD is unable to calculate the training hours lost if a booking was cancelled as a result of vandalism.”
Finally, Health and Safety. In the presentation and an open meeting with Councillors, Michael Gove and Col Cook, the man responsible for the Ranges, the biggest reason for the closure was Health and Safety, protecting the public from the dangers they lived with for hundreds of years. No evidence was given. We requested the report that led to this assertion. No report has been produced. All reports available, point to the fact all risks are mitigated significantly, and no recommendation for closure has been seen.
All three reasons are effectively moot. They do not have any reasoned evidence to back up any of the claims.
Ash Parish Council, in particular, Nigel Manning and Jo Randall, are as frustrated as us. Once presented with evidence, or lack of it, in numerous Zoom calls since September, they became aware that there is no evidence to support closure.
They are frustrated that the MOD states that there were discussions about the closure with Ash PC in August 2018. No one at the council has memory or notes about this discussion. No one at the MOD can produce evidence that this occurred. They are frustrated that H&S has closed Ash Ranges but left Henley Gate and Stoney Castle open, with the same steep drops, shrapnel and other concerns. They are frustrated that the MOD is not communicating with them. Numerous emails and calls have gone unanswered.
But, with all this frustration, there is a glimmer of hope. Our calls with Councillors Nigel and Jo have led to the Ranges being back on the Ash PC meeting schedule on the 11th January 2021.
It was agreed that the council would change stance. Rather than supporting the MOD in their closure, they are requiring the MOD to re-open the ranges when not firing when they have not provided evidence as listed above. This will be initiated with a letter to the MOD. A subsequent letter will be sent to Jeremy Quin regarding the H&S issue and the discrepancies between the risks on Ash Ranges, which are closed, and the ranges at Henley Gate and Stoney Castle that remain open.
Both letters will be written with the support of the Save Ash Ranges group, to ensure we send a strong message that we are not accepting the removal of access and want to discuss the future of Ash Ranges openly to allow continued use by parishioners.
With the support of the council, we are seeing a consistent message being presented to the MOD and hopefully, this political pressure will re-instate the ranges to being somewhere open for all residents, whatever their ability.