A while back, I had a conversation with a local resident who had been speaking to a friend of theirs who was an Army Padre elsewhere in the country about the various issues that have been coming up locally and the difficulties of dealing with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. His friend apparently laughed and said in his experience dealing with the DIO was like speaking to a box with a speaker on it, you never felt like you were dealing with real people.
That comment rings true with people all over Arborfield, again and again we’ve come across situations where the DIO have done things that seem inexplicable when you look at the effect it has locally.
Firstly we have the closure of the shop and Post Office, without any consultation with local people. The presence of the shop and Post Office had been used as a justification for not providing any sort of convenience store for the development of Penrose Park, and subsequently the Garrison Post Office had taken on the role of main Post Office for the whole of Arborfield when the Post Office had closed the facilities in the village. However this counted for nothing when the Garrison Post Office was closed at 24 hours notice. The Post Office have now all but given up trying to get the DIO to actually follow the proper closure procedure despite maintaining that the closure was only temporary for a long while after the closure.
Moving on, the DIO for a while has been acting as if the Garrison is completely closing, and all military personnel are leaving, despite this not being the case – we continue to have personnel from Aldershot resident. It really does seem as if the DIO think all the personnel here are going to drive down to Aldershot to use the facilities there.
So far they have tried to close the Community Centre, again at short notice, which was saved by a concerted local response. They tried to close the Garrison Church which was only saved by an appeal from the local congregation to the Bishop of Reading to take responsibility for the church as part of the civilian church organisation.
There is also the whole fiasco over the dog walking field, much of which is being retained as public open space, and which Crest Nicholson are happy for residents to keep using. However the DIO has had a wire fence put all along the edge of the field blocking access. Crest Nicholson have said that the fence will more than likely be removed, and have argued with the DIO that it is pointless to erect a fence just to have it removed.
It’s not just the regular personnel whose needs have been ignored, recently there has been discussion locally about the fate of the Arborfield Army Cadets following a planning application to convert the closed Post Office and shop. The cadets had had facilities within the Garrison, but as part of the closure they were kicked out and have been meeting in the Pavilion. At no point during the departure plans was it even considered that the cadets, who draw members from the local community, would need somewhere to meet. The DIO solution is to convert the old shop, that whilst it is a DIO owned building that isn’t due to be demolished, is not exactly ideal. It’s a relatively small building in a residential area that already has parking issues, and yet the building has no parking. Whilst the inside can be converted there is no outside space with the building at all.
Sadly this inadequate building seems to have been presented to the cadets as the only option aside from closing the Arborfield Cadets altogether. The Arborfield Cadets have been a valuable presence in the community for a number of years, parading at events such as Remembrance and providing activities for young people in the village that would not be available anywhere else, and nobody wants to see them close. However they really deserve better facilities than a converted shop – at the very least they need somewhere with both inside and outside drill space, somewhere where their needs have been properly considered, rather than palmed off with a “spare” building. Or are the DIO expecting them to parade in the children’s playground next door? That is quite apart from the need for a shop and Post Office which has been regularly raised by residents ever since it was closed and has been rebuffed a number of times by the DIO since then. Whilst eventually there will be new shops opening as part of the development according to the plans, the experience in Jennets Park in Bracknell is that even if it is a required part of the planning approval it can be a real fight to get a shop provided. It’s almost as if somebody in the DIO box has decided that putting the cadets in the shop would solve two problems in one, a new home for the cadets, and no place to reopen the shop the residents keep asking for.
Fundamentally, the focus for the DIO seems to be to maximise the amount of money they can generate from the closure of the Garrison. With the decision of the Navy and Air Force to pull out of the joint training base at the former RAF Lyneham this is even more of the issue as they have a much larger base than needed there, and are not going to be getting money from the closure of Navy and Air Force training facilities elsewhere. Things like the fence are merely procedure that must be followed, but the rest is trying to save as much money as possible, whatever the effect on personnel and civilians living locally.
The local community has stepped up to save the community centre and church, and we will continue to support the personnel families as long as they are in the village as we always have done before. We need to do the same for the Cadets – with detailed plans not finalised for many parts of the former Garrison it is perfectly possible to provide facilities for the Army Cadets that are exactly what they require, and will meet all their needs – the obvious place would be as part of the school development underway a short distance away. Do we really want our cadets squeezed in a converted shop and parading on a children’s playground – or should they get the facilities they deserve as part of the wider development?
Also published on Medium.