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Parish Council Letter to Minister Questions Reasons for Ash Range Closure

Published on: 29 Jan, 2021
Updated on: 30 Jan, 2021

Campaigners in December 2020

By David Reading

Ash Parish Council has challenged MoD Minister Jeremy Quin over the campaign to reopen the Ash Range Firing Complex (ARFC).

In an open letter, the council cites “blatant inconsistencies presented by the Ministry of Defence and their complete disregard of the residents of Ash and the surrounding communities”.

For nearly 170 years residents have used the ranges for recreation but in March 2020 the MoD closed 12 per cent of the area, saying they had serious concerns about safety and vandalism.

The council has challenged the MoD’s reasons for the closure, criticised what it sees as MoD contradictions and calls the process “a complete cover-up”.

Cllr Nigel Manning, chairman of Ash parish council

Cllr Nigel Manning, parish council chairman, issued a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to obtain evidence justifying the closure. “Regrettably, no evidence has been forthcoming,” he said.

The letter to Mr Quin, Minister for Defence Procurement, said the council was “disappointed and very angry” by the closure without consultation.

Three meetings were arranged between parish councillors and the MoD to discuss residents’ concerns but all three were cancelled at short notice by the MoD, the council said.

In May 2020, the council held a Zoom meeting with the MoD and was told the closure was due to vandalism that caused £170,000 in damage over the past five years, plus subsequent loss of military training hours.

That figure was published in the Dragon after an MoD interview last summer, but campaigners have consistently challenged the accuracy.

Michael Gove MP and Cllr Nigel Manning, on the parade to the Ash War Memorial in 2013.

Since May 2020, further talks included a public Zoom meeting in September, attended by Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove and the MoD.

Cllr Manning said the MoD’s representative, Colonel Phil Cook, categorically stated vandalism and criminal damage were not the reasons for the closure. Instead, Col Cook said the MoD had wanted to close the ranges for years because of health and safety.

Cllr Manning said he sought hard evidence, informally via the MoD and then using FoI requests, that supported reasons used by the MoD for the closure. He requested detailed breakdowns of the costs caused by vandalism and lost training hours.

He also asked to see a copy of the Health and Safety Executive assessment of the Ash ranges firing floors and the need for MoD closure. Cllr Manning added: “I regret to say that to date none of the information I have requested has been forthcoming.”

Map showing location of Ash Ranges. Google Maps

The council’s letter draws Mr Quin’s attention to “conflicting information”. It said: “I have no alternative but to respectfully demand that you restore full public access to the ARFC with immediate effect until proper, open, honest and constructive discussions can take place to find an agreeable solution for the benefit and satisfaction of all parties.”

Carl Cookson, a spokesman for the campaign, said: “We continually raised the lack of evidence to support the reasons for closure. It is via these meetings that we kept the closure of the range at the forefront of the council’s mind and encouraged them to ask for evidence to support their decisions. We are grateful in particular to Cllr Nigel Manning and Cllr Jo Randall for their continued dedication.

“We would ask Jeremy Quin to listen to the local residents and re-open the ranges, especially as we are encouraged to exercise and still be socially distance.”

James Morgan-Yates

Another active campaigner, James Morgan-Yates, claims that on two occasions he has been intimidated by visits to his Ash Vale home from MoD police. He reported the incidents to MP Mr Gove and made an official complaint to the MoD.

On December 23, two officers questioned him, saying they were taking notes to file a report with their head office.

“The visit left me pretty concerned and it wasn’t until later I realised the DIO [Defence Infrastructure Organisation] were using MoD police to try to intimidate me to stay away from the ranges, despite having the legal right to do so.”

On a second visit police told him: “Leave the ranges issue with the parish council.”

An MoD statement said: “The Ministry of Defence Police (MDP) always seek to maintain positive relationships with the local communities where its officers are deployed, and expects all officers to maintain the highest possible standards of professional conduct at all times.

“In this instance, two officers from the MDP station at Longmoor visited a member of the public as part of a commitment to maintain a regular dialogue with all sections of the local community regarding concerns with public access to Ash Ranges. The officers left immediately when they were asked to do so.”

The statement said the public still had access to the remaining 88 per cent of the range for recreation when there was no military training and the MoD was continuing to improve the paths around the perimeter of the technical area to increase access to the 88 per cent.

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