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Campaigners Sceptical About MoD’s Proposals for Ash Ranges 

Published on: 26 Apr, 2022
Updated on: 26 Apr, 2022

Land previously open to the public, closed in March 2020, still closed. Campaigners want it reinstated

By David Reading

Part of Ash Ranges, controversially closed by the Ministry of Defence in the spring of 2020, has been re-opened to the public.

The announcement by the MoD follows a two-year campaign by Ash Vale residents to have the restricted area reinstated for public recreation.

But the campaigners have described the reopening as falling far short of their hopes and expectations.

Before March 2020, the public had been allowed for around 170 years to use a large area of the ranges for recreation, but at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, the MoD declared that it was sealing off 12 per cent of the land – barring it from public use.

People with disabilities were said to be affected worst of all because of the distance they have had to travel to the access points that remained.

Land closed off in March 2020 – now reopened. But campaigners say the MoD proposals don’t meet their wishes

The MoD said the closure was due to safety concerns over the public accessing a firing range, even on non-firing days, and to prevent vandalism.

Now the MoD has announced a phased re-opening, which began to take effect at the beginning of April. The campaigners are convinced this was as a result of continued public pressure on the MoD, Ash Parish Council and Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove, but they believe the proposals are flawed and of little benefit to many people.

In a statement explaining the reopening, the MoD said: “Access to the Southern Area has been opened between the boundary of Ash and the firing points. Additional areas will be opened as work is completed, providing a continuous hardened route from Furze Hill in the north to Area E5 in the south. Access will be granted when no military training is being conducted and the red flags are not flying.

“This part of the training area is in addition to the 88 per cent of the range that is open to the public for recreation when military training is not taking place. It has been agreed to allow public access to the area whilst maintaining the closure of the technical area for public safety reasons.”

Campaigners Carl Cookson (left) and Peter Corns

But the campaigners – members of Save Our Spaces – say the reopening is limited and is simply an attempt to appease the community and doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), the part of the MoD responsible, is heavily criticised for not engaging with the community, and for spending a lot of money on new fencing without having discussions with local people. Campaigner Peter Corns said this sum was likely to far exceed the cost incurred by vandalism.

 

Land earmarked for the North/South access corridor providing entry to the wider Range Danger Area (RDA). But the campaigners have serious reservations about this proposal.

According to the Save Our Spaces, the main problems with the plans are:

  • The two-metre-high chain link fencing which has been installed under Phase 1a provides minimal access to hardened surfaces.
  •  Phase 2 is heralded as a north-south access corridor providing entry to the wider Range Danger Area (RDA), but this will take the form of a narrow corridor between high fences – exiting at possibly the most inhospitable terrain of the wider RDA.
  • Walkers will be expected to climb a steep slope, which will be impossible for the less fit. Only the exceptionally fit and healthy will benefit.
  • The planned gates will be of help only to pedestrians. Other groups such as cyclists are being ignored.
  • No consideration has been given to wildlife. It’s likely, say the campaigners, that the high fences will block the movement of deer.
  • Excluding the public from the entire area is not supported by the local byelaws.

The Ash Ranges controversy has created strong feelings across the Ash area for two years. In December 2020 a mass protest outside the main gates of the ranges was hailed an unqualified success by the organisers.

Campaigners at the December 2020 protest.

Almost 100 local people – including families with children – turned up to voice their feelings about the closure. The highlight was a service of prayer conducted by the Rev’d Neil Lambert, vicar of St Mary’s, Ash Vale.

Commenting on the MoD’s latest announcement, campaign spokesperson Carl Cookson said he was deeply disappointed with the limitations in the proposals and added: “We will continue to seek communication with the DIO, Ash Parish Council and Mr Gove and ask them to meet us so we can find a solution that is good for local people.”

But Ash Parish Council has taken a different view, expressing delight at the reopening.

In a statement on the council website Cllr Nigel Manning, the chairman, said: “I am extremely pleased that the MoD have opened up part of the firing complex for public access at all times, when the red flags are not flying. This area runs from Enfield Road to the Normandy Hill Corner.

“This will enable all residents to have access to a formal tarmacked road as well as flat grassed areas and woodland.  The access gates into this newly opened up area, have also been improved for easier access.

“This finally completes one of the hardest fought battles for public access, to part the Ash Firing Range Complex, that was previously stopped by the MoD in April 2020. The MoD have advised me that the east-west corridor, connecting the perimeter path to the Range Danger Area (RDA) is expected to be finalised later this year.”

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