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Share  Tweet Wednesday 28th February 2024

Patience, Persistence and Politeness – key factors in gaining access

Written by Ranald Macdonald, Derwent Valley Orienteers


For many years Derwent Valley Orienteers had gained permission to hold Level C/Regional events at Linacre Reservoirs, to the west of Chesterfield in northern Derbyshire. The three reservoirs used to provide drinking water for the Chesterfield area but became non-operational in 1995 and are now managed for wildlife and visitors and provide a popular local amenity, particularly with dog walkers and families. The woodland around the reservoirs is a mixture of runnable forest and areas of slow run with ground vegetation, mainly brambles. The area continues to be managed by Severn Trent Water.

Prior to the pandemic DVO held its last event at Linacre just before the first lockdown on 8 March 2020, which attracted 215 competitors. As with previous events, we were not asked for any access fees.

In January 2022 we started planning for an event in November that year and, having been given an earlier indication that a request would be successful, approached Severn Trent with a draft risk assessment, a previous all controls map and the BOF indemnity policy.

A setback

We were therefore surprised to receive an email saying that our request had been rejected “due to the Event straying away from the main footpaths/walks. These areas are not included in our Tree Safety checks.” It turned out that their concern was with ash die-back and that they were concerned about allowing groups into areas that they couldn’t be 100% certain is safe. My initial reply pointed out that orienteering is an individual sport and the only groups might be families who would stick to paths, within the areas covered by their safety checks. I also noted that no other major landowners whom we approached for permission to hold events had raised the issue of ash die-back; these included the National Trust, Forestry England and Chatsworth Estates.

At this stage I was communicating with Severn Trent’s Senior Visitor Engagement Officer and the Visitor Experience Operation Manager (who thinks up these titles?), who are responsible for the day-to-day operations of their visitor sites. We went through several rounds of communication, with no movement on their part other than to say we shouldn’t have been given permission in the past!

A tactical error?

Finding I was getting nowhere, I arranged a meeting with Emma Monkman, British Orienteering’s Access and Environment Officer, and we agreed to ask Peter Hart, BOF Chief Executive, to contact the CEO of Severn Trent Water, Liv Garfield CBE. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she backed the decision of her staff and suggested we arranged a meeting with Dan Taberner, the Visitor Experience Operations Manager based at Carsington Reservoir, to discuss alternative arrangements for an event.

Emma and I met with Dan on 15 May 2023, having sent him previous maps and risk assessments in advance. It was a very positive meeting and we were more hopeful that the event would be allowed to go ahead. Because it had been referred back to him he may have felt empowered to make a different decision, though that is speculation on my part. However, there was still opposition from the main person responsible on the ground who reiterated his concerns about safety and falling trees.

A key meeting to negotiate access

In late September 2023 Richard Parkin, DVO’s mapper for the area, and I met on site with Dan and his colleague. It became clear that Dan was open to persuasion if we agreed to meet certain conditions. His colleague, somewhat tellingly, said very little. The main condition was that no control should be more than 40 metres from a path. We agreed to this as there are many paths at Linacre and we only lost a few controls from previous events. Dan told us that we had permission, in principle, when they had seen the final All Controls map. A tip: increase the size of the circles enough and they all look as if they are close to paths!

The event was due to be held on Saturday 25 November 2023. We had gone for the Saturday because South Yorkshire Orienteers, a neighbouring club, had scheduled an event for the Sunday and we thought it was good to have a couple of relatively adjacent events over the one weekend.  SYO subsequently moved their event into early 2024! However, we decided to stick with the date already publicised.

We had to plan as if we had permission even though it was still touch and go. I had agreed to be the Controller as we had a relatively inexperienced Planner and I am a Grade A Controller who has mentored many Planners and Controllers in the past. It also fitted with my role as Access Officer for the area and DVO’s Event Safety Officer as I could make play of the fact that safety was always my primary concern but that no outdoor activity could be 100% risk-free. Our safety track record as a sport is excellent and our environmental credentials stand up to scrutiny as well, though we could always do better.

A last, we have permission!

On Friday 10 November 2023 Dan emailed me to say the event could go ahead as planned if we agreed to include in the Risk Assessment that the event would be cancelled if there was a Met Office Yellow, Amber or Red weather warning for wind, which we would have taken account of in normal circumstances anyway.

Two weeks before the event we finally had permission to go ahead! The event went ahead successfully, with just over 200 competitors on a very cold but sunny day. It was almost two years since I had made the first approach for permission.

A further complication over the last few events at Linacre has been that we lost parking at a pub adjacent to the area as their customer numbers had gone up and they couldn’t release the space. However, we have been parking at Holmebrook Valley Country Park, also to the west of Chesterfield, which has a lot of hard standing, and using Community Transport minibuses. As it was only a 10-minute ride away, this arrangement worked well, though some competitors did get cold waiting for the return ride. As a club, we have become much more comfortable with parking a short distance from the event and using minibuses.

Lessons learned?

What lessons did we learn?

That it pays to be patient, persistent and polite. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. With hindsight, I would reflect a bit more about whether to escalate it too far up the organisation as most managers will support their staff. Be patient but keep badgering, whilst remaining polite, even though you really want to say “don’t be so stupid!”

If you can, meet with the person able to make a decision. In this case we had been told that Dan was a very reasonable and amiable person, and this proved to be the case. His colleague seemed less experienced and was working to the book rather looking for compromises or solutions.

It was a LOT of effort for a Level C event. However, we have been losing areas, or had restrictions curtailing access, so we couldn’t afford to let a relatively good orienteering area go without a fight.