A letter to the Parish Council

One of our founder members, Carl Cookson, has been working tirelessly in the background to bring the Parish Council onboard. With the help of Peter Corns, Sarah Alexander and Kate Foster they have made some significant progress. Carl has now written a letter to all Parish Councillors ahead of the next full council meeting and has asked me to share this with you:

Dear Councillors

Hope this email finds you well and you are managing to stay safe.

As you will know, Ash Ranges Danger Area has been closed since March 2020.

Since this time, my fellow campaigners and I have been trying to understand the reasons behind the closure and hold the MOD/DIO accountable for any claims. After our open meeting with our MP, MOD, Councillors and interested public in September, our campaign has been having regular meetings with the council, Councillors Manning and Randall representing Ash PC.

This series of meetings can be found on YouTube here. SaveAshRanges – YouTube

Each meeting, we have discussed how Ash PC could support the campaign, better understand the communications between the MOD and Council and also, ensure that Mr Gove is kept up to date with this issue. It is with the support of Nigel and Jo that Ash Ranges closure is back on the agenda for the next full council meeting.

This decision has not been taken lightly, but it has become apparent, via a long series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, that the Parish Council and the general public has been misled in the claims made by the MOD for the reasons to close the Ranges.

Our request is that the full council determines how it can, in the strongest terms, inform MOD that they do not accept the closure and the reasons given for it. We also want the MOD to start discussions on how this situation can be resolved, for the betterment of your parishioners.

There are five main points I want you to consider, which I feel shows the continued campaign of misinformation by the MOD, highlighting their reasons for closure and how each explanation can not be corroborated.

1.       Vandalism Costs

To better understand the arguments for closure and the numerous parts of disinformation by the MOD, I refer you to a presentation given to Ash PC and the press in August 2020. The presentation is available here. It is also reported on in the Guildford Dragon around the same time.

In this presentation, on page 19, it is stated that:

“Vandalism since 2015 and rectification costs have exceeded £170,000”

Reading this figure, our group decided that we would like to see the break down of these costs, and I raised an FOI for this in August 2020, available here which I would have assumed would be a simple case of making public the spreadsheet of what repairs contributed to this figure.

After a reply delaying in September, their response in October refused the request as the time taken to collate the information would exceed the time frames and cost associated with an FOI request.

I appealed this decision, still assuming that somewhere, someone had calculated the vandalism costs. I received a  reply on 11th December, which states the following, point 16 of the final letter.

“I have also determined that the costs of £170,000 published in the news article 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.”

In short, the £170,000 figure has no basis in fact. The MOD has admitted that this figure can not be tied back to any list of incidents or attributed to vandalism in any way.

2.       Engagement with Ash PC

Back to the presentation, page 20 states

“2018 – 15th August Initial meeting with Ash Parish Council (PC) concerning intent to secure range floor area technical area.”

Councillor Manning at our last discussion confirmed that the only recollection of discussions with the MOD in August 2018 were concerning heavy plant movement in and around Heath Vale Bridge road to remove trees on the Range Area. This would have disrupted the local residents and users of the ranges.

Mr Corns requested any minutes or documentation of these discussions from both Ash PC and MOD in an FOI on 26th August, available here. The MOD stated in their reply that there is no record of conversations.

This lie from the MOD represents their continued willful disregard for both the local council and your parishioners. Either that or the Council has known about the closure for over two years and not made it public.

3.       Vandalism Photos

Page 21/22 of the presentation show damage done to support their vandalism claim. The pictures that show damage to fencing and gates can not be attributed to the closure. These external barriers will continue to be attractive to those in our society that want to commit these acts.

Further, some of the pictures are not from the closed area but represented as such. Henley gate and areas always publicly available are pictured. At least one of the photos presented to the council and the wider media the DIO did not have permission to use. The photograph inferred that the taker of the photograph which could be deduced is responsible for criminally damaging the ranges. This is flagrant disrespect of the public in general and the rules around copyright infringement.

Closing the danger area has only contributed to the problems as can be seen in the statistics presented on page 25.

It is to be noted, that this list includes 13 acts of criminal damage in 2020, up to 21st June, the latest list we have. As with point 1, it is not clear what the cost of this vandalism was, whether it was on the exterior fence line or would have been prevented by the closure.

Further, the number of incidents has increased, but mostly in a time of closure. The actions of the MOD has no doubt contributed to this rise, particularly as the more responsible members of the public are no longer patrolling the area. This closed-off area has become a mecca for those in our community who want to cause damage, the chances of detection have dropped significantly.

4.       Lost Training Hours

On 2nd September, and posted on the council website on 10th September, there was a meeting with the MOD and councillors. Councillor Manning states in this letter available here

“which was entirely due to the cost of vandalism and the hundreds of hours of military training lost each year because of misuse of the firing complex by the public. “

We have already debunked the vandalism costs. I raised another FOI to understand the hours lost on 11th September. The first response was on 2nd October

“A search for the information has now been completed within the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and I can confirm that no information in scope of your request is held. “

It also made clear that this figure is just word of mouth. After appealing, the final response from the MOD in the same FOI as the vandalism costs, point 26, it is stated:

“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.”

I, and I hope you, expect more from our civil servants. This claim does not hold up to any scrutiny but has been used by the MOD to justify the closure to the council, MPs and Ash residents.

5.       Health and Safety

In the public meeting which Col Cook, Michael Gove and members of the council attended, available here, Col Cook brought up a further reason for closure, namely Health and Safety.

Again, we asked for the reports that would corroborate this claim. This FOI can be seen here.

This report states all risks have been mitigated. No action was required to be taken and there was no reason to exclude the public.

Col Cook mentions health and safety numerous times, including structures and public use which makes the area a dangerous place. Mr Manning has asked for information about how the closed area is any different to other areas that are still open. Henley Gate, Stoney Castle and ranges across the UK remain open, with the same structures and public access continues. Why has the closed area been singled out? This was requested on or around 16th October. In the last meeting with the councillors, it was clear that this information has not been given.

I apologies for the length of this email, but I wanted to ensure that councillors are educated of the continued discussions and the lack of evidence to support the reasons are highlighted. We are willing to discuss the future of Ash Ranges with the MOD and Ash PC, but to do this, we need to start with the return of opening up the ranges. This space has been the cornerstone of Ash prior to the purchase of the land in 1854. Since then, the community has enjoyed the freedom of access, when the flags are down.

The MOD has become a noisy neighbour, with total disrespect for the council and its community. We want to ensure the MOD are held to account for their reasons and start a fully educated discussion with the public.

I look forward to your discussions on the topic and hopefully we, as a community, can work with the MOD to reopen the ranges and work with them to fix the problems that led to the closure in the first place.

Please do not hesitate to contact me to discuss further.

Regards

Carl Cookson