A THREE-YEAR fight to stop the Army fencing off part of a well-loved green space in Colchester has been lost.

Residents battled to prevent a fence going up around the rifle ranges on Middlewick, which the Army claims is plagued by vandals, flytipping and people using the area during live-firing exercises.

The defeat came yesterday, with a planning inspector ruling Colchester Council can divert a footpath to allow the fence to go up.

The changes will cut off 100 acres of the 207-acre site with an eight-foot chain fence.

It is not yet known if access to the remaining 107 open acres will be allowed when military training is taking place.

Chick Cox, chairman of Monkwick Residents’ Association, said he was “bitterly disappointed” at the decision.

“This is a very sad loss of access to an area of beautiful green space,” the Queen Elizabeth Way resident said.

“People who have enjoyed playing and walking on this area for their entire lives will now find a fence in their way.

“While there still is a lot of Middlewick available, this is the most used part and it is what people in the Willows and Birch Glen estates see as their open space.

“I feel the inspector has discounted our fears that people will find themselves trapped against this fence, with little or no route to escape from perceived dangers, such as grass fires and dangerous dogs.”

Mr Cox was critical of a lack of backing for efforts to defeat the fence.

“I think that as the fence goes up people will realise what they have lost and there will be screeches of indignation, but it is too late now,” he said.

“I do feel that if more people had made more noise, then perhaps there would have been a different outcome.”

Berechurch councillor Dave Harris said he was “gutted” at the decision, but it was one he feared was inevitable.

“I was hoping we would be able to work with the Army to tackle the antisocial behaviour that is causing them problems, but the planning inspector did not think that was workable,” he said.

“The Army has been pleasant about it, and offered to move the fence a touch so the made-up footpath will still be accessible, but it doesn’t change the overall picture.”

At a public inquiry in January, the Army said that during 2009 it had lost 333 man training days to vandalism and 18 people had walked on to the ranges, off Mersea Road, during live firing.

Repairing damage caused by vandals has cost £25,500 since 2006.

Defence Estates spokesman, Tony Moran, said: “While public safety is of paramount importance, it is vital our armed forces can train without interruption.

“Diverting this footpath allows us to build fencing which will help protect members of the public from inadvertently straying into danger.

“Making the ranges more secure will also help reduce the threat of vandalism and disruption to troops training at this location.”

Colchester Council said it had yet to receive official notification of the decision and declined to comment.

The Army allows the public access to a total of 793 acres of its land in Colchester when it is not using the land for training at the time.