`Out-of-Bounds Britain' campaign: Our challenge to Army chiefs

More than 500,000 acres of the finest countryside in Britain is closed to all but military personnel. Mark Rowe went to the MoD and asked: how can you justify this?
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A CAMPAIGN for greater access by walkers and ramblers to some 590,000 acres of land owned by the Ministry of Defence was launched by the Independent on Sunday last week. Much of it is not in constant use for Army training and is closed unnecessarily to the public.

In total, the MoD has 12 major training areas based on regional centres, such as Otterburn in Northumberland National Park, parts of Dartmoor, and Pembrokeshire, including the Castlemartin firing range.

Our criticism of MoD policy last week prompted the ministry to invite the newspaper to a meeting headed by defence minister Peter Kilfoyle and attended by Ian Andrews, the chief executive of defence estates, and Colonel James Baker, the MoD's head of conservation. Here, we provide the MoD's response to the points made at the start of our campaign.

How serious are you about taking action to improve access?

"We want to be quite open and are looking at how to improve the availability of information and get more up-to-date information," said Mr Andrews. "In a way, the Right to Roam is catching up with the MoD. We have changed attitudes and we believe in this. We are keen to produce an annual stewardship report and be subject to performance indicators."

What concrete action are you taking to open up more training areas?

Public access is a principle of defence estate management, according to the MoD, which has adopted the slogan "striking a balance". It points to the publication of a booklet "Walks on MoD land", and work to resolve rights of way issues on Salisbury Plain and to enhance permissive bridleways across the training area at Catterick, North Yorkshire. "Access to MoD land is a success story," said Mr Kilfoyle. "This is not something we shy away from. There are a lot of different agendas involved and we want to contribute to the debate as it unfolds."

How do you justify live firing taking place near centres of high-density populations?

The location of training areas is historic, says the MoD, reflecting the traditional locations of garrison towns and the acquisition of land for defence purposes during the two world wars. Regardless of the location of a training area, safety of both the public and troops is paramount.

Does the MoD have a timescale for opening up more of its land?

The ministry is publishing a review of defence strategy in the spring, following consultation with a wide range of statutory and voluntary bodies. "We are looking to reduce the size of the training area but it is heavily utilised at the moment. But we don't envisage a major expansion either," said Mr Andrews.

Are there any alternatives to live training? What about simulators?

"Live firing is absolutely fundamental," said Mr Andrews. "Computer simulation can complement it but there's no substitute for training on a real landscape and experiencing live fire. We are putting men and women in harm's way and they must be trained."

Doesn't this mean that public access and wildlife rank lower in the list of the MoD's priorities?

"We can't say we will never change our plans at a moment's notice," said Mr Andrews. "We can't stop soldiers training for a sudden operation because people are supposed to be allowed on to the land that day. The presumption is in favour of access and people will be allowed in unless there are good reasons for keeping them out. There will always be a reason for closure at short notice."

But many sites are often closed even when no firing is going on. The Army simply doesn't bother to remove the red flags.

"You often have to book these camps up a year in advance and different deployments can happen within that time," said Mr Andrews. "We're making greater efforts so that when one group cannot use a range it is advertised internally so another can take advantage. People often claim there is nobody on the range. Perhaps that's because no live firing is going on - and the quality of our camouflage is high."

Critics say that MoD land is among the most precious we have. How can you justify using it for live firing?

There are 265 Sites of Special Scientific Interest on MoD land and the MoD has an annual wildlife stewardship award, the Silver Otter, given to the regiment making the greatest effort to conservation, and publishes Sanctuary, a lavishly produced conservation magazine. A full-time archaeologist is employed on Salisbury Plain, which has 1,700 ancient monuments, dating back to 4,000BC. "We have 39 out of the UK's 45 biodiversity habitats,"said Col Baker.

What safeguards do you put in place to avoid damage to ancient sites and wildlife?

"There will always be ways that things can be improved, particularly the way that information has been available to the public," said Col Baker. "If training operations risk damaging the land, then we will close the range to soldiers as well as the public."

The MoD has produced videos instructing soldiers on manoeuvres how to respect the landscape and avoid damage. Yet the MoD accepts that a high risk exists: "You can't guarantee that something won't go wrong," said Col Baker. "Tank drivers are often made to drive in fog and at night."

At Castlemartin walkers must waive their rights in the event of any injury caused by ordnance. Why don't you do more to clear up scrap ordnance?

"It's very complex," said Mr Andrews. "It's difficult to guarantee the areas are clear. Shells can be churned up by the soil and come to the surface some time later. It's dangerous to remove them and there are places where we will not risk the lives of our people to clear them."

OUT-OF-BOUNDS BRITAIN

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We have received an excellent response from readers supporting the campaign and suggesting MoD areas in their locality which could be opened up. We will feature more of these in the weeks ahead. If you have any suggestions, write to: Out of Bounds Britain, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL - or email m.rowe@independent.co.uk

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