‘Following the conflicting explanations given by Ministry of Defence (MOD) for the complete closure of the Ash Range Firing Complex to members of the public, Cllr Nigel Manning, Chairman of Ash Parish Council issued a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to obtain the evidence which justifies the MOD actions. Regrettably, no evidence has been forthcoming. Accordingly, the letter below has recently been sent to Jeremy Quin MP, the Minister for Defence, who is responsible for the MOD Estate. We sincerely hope for a positive response’.
Re. Closure of The Ash Range Firing Complex. (ARFC)
I have recently received a copy of your letter dated 21 December 2020, originally sent to the Right Honourable (Rt. Hon.) Michael Gove MP regarding the closure of Ash Range Firing Complex (ARFC) by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Whereas the contents of your letter are noted, as an elected representative of the Ash community, I am duty bound to draw to your attention the blatant inconsistencies presented by the MOD and their complete disregard of the residents of Ash and the surrounding communities.
First, I must stress that Ash Parish Council (APC), has long supported and welcomes the military activities on Ash Ranges. Having said that however, APC along with the residents it represents, were extremely disappointed and very angry when, without warning or indeed consultation, the ARFC was closed to the public. I regret to say that the disappointment and anger has not subsided; it has in fact continued to grow. To enable you to understand why this is, I have set out below the series of events, leading up to where we are now.
- December 2019. As Chairman of Ash Parish Council (APC) it was drawn to my attention that there was a rumour the MOD were considering closing the ARFC. APC sought to arrange a meeting with MOD.
- Between February and March 2020, three separate meetings were arranged between Members of APC (myself and Cllr. Jo Randall) and the MOD, to discuss the concerns of Ash residents regarding the rumoured closure of the ARFC. All three of these meetings were cancelled at short notice by the MOD.
- 1 April 2020 – The ARFC was closed to the public without any warning or consultation with APC or the public who use it.
- APC contacted Rt. Hon. Michael Gove as the constituency Member of Parliament (MP) to raise concerns about the closure of the ARFC.
- Following representations by Michael Gove to yourself, the MOD were directed to enter dialogue with APC to discuss the closure of the ARFC. APC hoped to seek a way forward to find a resolution acceptable to all interested parties.
- May 2020 – Due to Covid 19, a Zoom meeting was held between representatives of APC and the MOD. APC were advised the ARFC had been closed due to vandalism (£170,000 over last 5 years) and the subsequent loss of military training hours.
- Since May 2020, four other Zoom and physical meetings have taken place with the MOD to explore ways of giving the public access, possibly limited, to the ARFC, and to the Range Danger Area. (RDA) via the perimeter path.
- 16 September 2020 – A public meeting (which was recorded) was held via Zoom. The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP was in attendance. The official representative for the MOD, Colonel Phil Cook categorically stated that vandalism and criminal damage were NOT the reasons for the closure of the ARFC. Instead Colonel Cook told the meeting that the MOD had wanted to close the ARFC for years, because of ongoing Health and Safety (H&S) concerns!!!!
I have to say, the conflicting information presented by the MOD, has been exacerbated by the statements made in your letter. Was the closure of the ARFC really due to vandalism and the disruption to training, or the latter reason given by Colonel Cook, Health and Safety? These conflicting statements have severely damaged that relationship between APC, the MOD and Ash residents. As a result of these damaging and inconsistent statements and the continued failure to provide any evidence to substantiate the reasons for closing the ARFC, I as Chairman of APC sought evidence. Firstly, informally via the MOD and then formally by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, to obtain the evidence to support the reasons used by the MOD to close the ARFC. Specifically, these requests were:
“I would request that MoD/DIO please provide a detailed breakdown of the financial costs of repairing the damage caused by vandalism to the actual Ash Range Firing Complex, including firing butts, buildings, targets etc. for each of the five years prior to their permanent closure this year”.
Actual training time lost
“I would request that MoD/DIO please provide a detailed breakdown of the hours of training lost caused by vandalism to the Ash Range Firing Complex, for each of the five years prior to the permanent closure of these areas”.
Health and Safety
“I would request that you provide a copy of the H&S Executive assessment of the Ash Ranges Firing floors and the need for MoD to take this action.
On the same issue of H&S, we were told that the firing floors at both Stoney Castle and Henley Gate, which form part of the wider Ash Ranges area and which have similar hazards to the Ash Firing Floors, remain open and accessible. Is this correct? If so, would you please explain how this can happen, as surely the H&S assessment applies across all the MOD Estate? Why have the Ash Firing floors been treated so differently?”
I regret to say that to date none of the information I have requested has been forthcoming, despite the comments made in your letter dated 21 December 2020. For your information, I attach a copy of the letter I received from some nameless bureaucrat in the Secretariat of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO). Quite frankly the contents are a total insult and only confirms my belief that there is a complete cover up.
It is clear from the evidence I have seen, that the bureaucrats within the MOD who have been advising you, clearly “don’t know their right hand from their left” and the contents of your letter dated 21 December 2020, not only confirms this but has, I am sad to say, exacerbated the position even further.
It is apparent that you as a Minister of State for Defence, with responsibility for Defence Procurement, have not been provided with the full picture or indeed the current information, as provided to me by the MOD. Therefore, how can I as Chairman of Ash Parish Council, or the residents that I represent, have any faith or belief in anything that your department has to say?
Given the above, as Chairman of Ash Parish Council, I have no alternative but to respectfully demand that you as Minster of State for Defence, 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.
I must stress the ARFC is a very important area for many, many people, especially the less mobile in our community, as it enables them to enjoy fresh air and take regular daily exercise on the flat. The external perimeter path which gives access to the RDA is very uneven and is completely unsuitable for wheelchair users, others with limited mobility and children in pushchairs. More now than ever, given the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic, it is so important for residents to follow government guidelines and only take exercise within the local area. By continuing to deny residents access to the ARFC, it will restrict their ability to exercise, thus impacting on their physical and mental health, or encourage them to exercise outside of their local area in contradiction of the strict government guidelines. This will inevitably lead to the spread of Coronavirus and not protect the NHS.
To conclude, I can assure you that both Ash Parish Council and the users of the ARFC are committed in wanting to assist the MOD in making these areas safe for both the military and the public to use and we all want to work harmoniously with the MOD to achieve this goal. I am happy to discuss this matter further with you and the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP face to face, or via a MS Teams or Zoom meeting, if you think this would help in your further understanding of the issue and to expedite matters for all concerned.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Councillor Nigel Manning
Ash Parish Council
cc. Michael Gove MP