Plas y Brenin.Just don't ask if they do 'Just Desserts' in the bar when certain people are around!
‘Once upon a time’ (anonymous 1595)
Post a bruising experience at a recent Alpine Club AGM when a motion I had put to the meeting (seconded by Stephen Venables) was roundly defeated, I visited the next day, two of my oldest friends Val and Joe Brown. The latter is now like myself; old and infirm, but we swapped memories and talked of absent friends (alive and dead) for some hours. By the time I departed his company, the doubts that had overtaken my thinking about how stupid I had been to ignore the pleas of the Alpine Club Committee to withdraw my motion, these were dissipated by a dose of common sense from Joe, and I realise that it is so right to try to defend the basic tenets developed over the two centuries of our sport.
It is derisory to now dismiss the climbers of our generation, active in the immediate post war years, and the 1950’s /1960’s as ‘Dirt Bag Climbers’, sorry participants in a ‘dark age’ of climbing, when there were just a few simplistic indoor walls, no organised competitions and no olympic recognition. As I left Joe we both agreed how lucky we had been to be active in that period.
Labour’s ‘1949 Access to the Countryside Act’ had allowed for the first time the freedom to climb undisturbed at some of the finest outcrops and mountain crags in the country, and Joe who was at his commanding best as a new route pioneer in those decades, enjoyed this on a scale not previously seen in British climbing. Do not misunderstand, some of my friends continued to climb and explore for all of their physically able lives, I am not sure the last time Joe climbed but my own was in the Fuling mountains of Yunnan, China and I ‘discovered?’ at the age of 74, Keketuohai, the Yosemite of that country in North East Xinjiang in 2009. So I think we maybe have earned a right to offer a view on Quo Vadis British climbing?
There are influences at play now that there never was previously, one is an unbridled commercialisation leading to unalloyed vested interests, and another is an assertive new style Sports Council, which has morphed into Sport England. The Sports Council/s were set up in 1972 with Royal Charters to enable government to have a role in the funding and development of sport, (there are such for each GB country, plus a UK one to meet the demands for Olympic and International participation) brought about mainly through the initiative of the first Minister of Sport Denis Howell (a former senior football referee). It took us time when I was at the BMC to convince the officers of those new bodies that rock climbing and mountaineering were unique, they were not games like netball or football and that our participants were taking part in a high risk activity. This was evidenced by an independent voluntary Mountain Rescue Service, providing help and support for free to anyone in distress or injured in our hills, which originated historically and is still administered and operated by members from within our sport.
We were lucky that in the early years of The Sports Council/s we could call on the advice and standing of Alan Blackshaw, an Under Secretary in the Civil Service. It was a joy to go to meetings with officials alongside him, for he out ranked them in the peculiar grading system they work under (EO, HEO, SEO etc). And so we built up mutual confidence and personal contact, and thus what has happened in recent years liaising with Sport England, their actions would have been both unthinkable and unacceptable in the 1970’s/ 1990’s. Using funding via grant aid they are forcing National bodies to do their bidding in relation to constitutions that meet their criteria, which is about having influence on how sports organisations are administered in this country. The intention is for them to become business orientated, and administered as market dependant bodies, an ideology that has caused decline in some of the UK’s most essential services?
At the setting up of The Sports Council it was constrained by the body which pre-dated it, the Central Council of Physical Recreation. This a none governmental organisation, was the initiative of a Physical Educationist Phyllis Colson, which at the inauguration of the Sport Council/s by agreement, handed over its staff and hard won properties which had been set up for individual sports to use such as Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall, the Crystal Palace, Holme Pierrepoint and Plas y Brenin. These were handed over to the Sports Council to further develop and administer, whilst the CCPR became the forum for the National bodies of sport. At this event in 1972 the CCPR was written into an agreement that it was to be the consultative body to The Sports Council, and as it had surrendered properties worth millions of pounds, each year this body had to agree a level of funding for the former to help support its work representing the National bodies of sport. The CCPR has now been superseded by a new body, the Sport and Recreation Alliance which as someone who used to be a member of the formers Executive Committee seems to be less of a force in its dealings with Sport England and Sport UK. The CCPR was not just a London based operation, for it had regional offices including one in Leeds, who in cooperation with the Yorkshire Mountaineering Club organised beginner’s rock climbing courses at Ilkley.
A first future policy review of the BMC was held in 1974 under the Chairmanship of Alan Blackshaw and it was of a different order than the present Organisational review, and it was subsequently updated on two more occasions. Furthermore in 1974 there was no direction to follow via the Sports Council as there is for the present BMC Org review by Sport England, who have demanded that National bodies of sport who wish to be recognised by government and receive grant aid have to meet their demands as spelled out in a Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 format. These are designed so that bodies can be delineated between the ones that merely seek recognition (Tier 1) and those that wish to apply for large sums of taxpayer support (Tier 3). The latter is what the BMC has now decided to become and which to qualify for it has transformed itself from a body, totally answerable for its actions to elected representatives, into an organisation administered by a mainly none elected Board of a Company Limited by Guarantee. Sport England even required for one of the Directors to be an independent (not a climber) and for the Chairperson of the Board not to be the elected President but a separate appointment. This has been agreed and achieved by a new set of Articles, which are actually the Constitution of the BMC. And this will mean a down grading of the role of the National Council; in the past (in my day it’s Management Committee) this has been its democratic forum made up from the Areas.The Venerable Venables. Photo SV
So why bother, just let Sport England and the new style BMC get on with it, but historical contacts will not allow me to. My own rebirth of interest began in 2014, when arriving home from China my house ‘phone rang as I walked through the front door; it was a long time climbing acquaintance, a Harrison’s Rocks legend Malcolm ‘The Wizard’ McPherson. ‘Did I know what was happening at the Harrison’s complex?’ ‘No’ I responded. ‘There has been a total break down with no maintenance for months, the ablution block has been closed and that means the Julie Tullis camp site is also shut, and the Car Park is breaking up’. This was disturbing news to me for besides being a past member of the Harrison’s Rocks Committee, I had also been a member of the Julie Tullis memorial appeal, and it had taken us ten years to obtain planning permission for a campsite alongside the Car Park. (We also set up and funded the Julie Tullis award, which is handed over each year to a pioneering female climber). The Officers of this appeal, its Chair Barney Lewis and its Secretary Doug Stone had found that their most difficult task had not been in dealing with such as the local Groombridge Council, surprisingly it had been in attempting to work with our own support body the BMC. I listened in disbelief when they confessed this to me; they had found trying to liaise with the Manchester Office, inefficient and time consuming.
To understand why this was so shocking you have need to understand the modern history of Harrison’s Rocks. They were purchased in 1958 by Nea Morin, Ted Pyatt, and Dennis Kemp and handed over to the BMC. But the Council as an unincorporated body could not then own land so a solution to this was found by the CCPR holding the outcrop in trust and a joint Management Committee was formed to administer the crag. This may seem bureaucratic to those who have never visited ‘Harrison’s’, but probably only Stanage can be compared in terms of popularity. Funds were obtained for both a car park and an ablution block which became necessary as parking in the nearby Groombridge village became a serious problem due to a growth in car ownership, and an ever increasing number of climbers visiting the outcrop. At the setting up of the Sports Council in 1972, that body became responsible for the funding of the Harrison’s complex, a task they inherited from the CCPR and from there on its Management Committee was extended to include their representative/s.
At the ‘phone call from ‘The Wizard’ I advised him to contact Bob Pettigrew, a former BMC President and Chair of the CCPR, who unlike me had kept close contact with the hierarchies of those bodies. Bob picked up on this Harrison’s Rocks problem and travelled to meet the CEO of the BMC in Manchester. He was surprised by the information he received at this for he was informed that as the land on which the complex stood was held under lease by Sport England from The Forestry Commission, and as the date for renewal was approaching, they had taken the decision not to do this and to pull out of their financial commitment to fund the facilities.
There was nothing that could be done to change this situation. When Bob reported this to me I could not believe how such an outcome had been allowed to develop by the BMC, and Malcolm was not appeased when he learnt the news. I pointed out to him that The Forestry Commission also had a brief to support access and countryside recreation, so maybe he should contact them to try to involve that body in solving the Harrison’s difficulties. Which he did, supported by another local climber Sarah Cullen. Malcolm is an impressive persuader, and soon he and Sarah had the ear of the concerned officials at the Forestry Commission, and they agreed with some caveats, e.g. over Parking charges, that they would take on the Management of the Harrison’s complex. At which point the BMC became back and a new Committee was set up to administer the facilities which is now being run to local climber and visitor’s satisfaction.
However one wonders at what might have been the outcome without the intervention of two locally committed activists? This Harrison’s development should have been a warning as to the changing nature of the administration and funding of sport in this country. It seems that elite participation has become paramount, and medal chasing is more important to the politicians than the encouragement of grass roots sport, despite health problems due to the large increase in overweight children and adults, as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise. Leading on to a massive increase in the NHS needing to deal with the results of this; namely an alarming growth in the cases of diabetes and cancers. Some Local Authority leisure centres and swimming pools have been closing or their access limited, yet £345 million’s is being made available by UK Sport to fund the living/training/coaching costs of participants who might win medals at the Tokyo Olympics or show a potential to do so in future. Do not misread me here, I am a supporter of the Olympic movement and have attended at a Games. I founded the Chevin Chase fell race in 1979 (in which Olympic medallists and many climbers have taken part), I was one of the originators of The Leeds Wall, and I am a former Board member of the Association of British Sport Psychologists. But what is under debate here is it a mistake to allow grass root sports facilities to decline, while generously funding elite participants, which surely poses a question as to what should be the priority in view of the above?
I brought the problems of the events at Harrison’s to the notice of an Alpine Club AGM held in November 2014, maybe that seems a surprising action to take, but the AC founded the BMC and in fact some of its past Presidents began their climbing careers at the outcrop, so there was an interest in my report. I suggested that in view of the way these difficulties had developed that a new future policy review of the Council was needed? The meeting agreed that this was so and invited its President Lindsay Griffin to discuss this with the Officers of the BMC. Which he did, but the response by them was that such a review was not needed! Fast forward to 2016 and the failed attempt by the BMC to rebrand and name change which resulted in further criticism, as to how policy was being formed at the Council. A large grant to facilitate this had been obtained from Sport England (£75,420) and this had resulted in a serious breakdown in relations, as this money was now seen to have been ill used. Once again some members of the Alpine Club were involved in this criticism, and so the Officers of that organisation decided to circulate the membership to ascertain their views on the matter. It being mid-summer 2016 when this occurred many of the members were away climbing in the Alps and Greater ranges, but over 300 replies were received and overwhelmingly they were unreservedly critical. This very much worried the Officers of the Club and I was invited to write a short paper to go to the membership at the November 2016 AGM, and having outlined the difficulties, seconded by Bob Pettigrew, we recommended the Alpine Club request once again a BMC future policy review.
A new Alpine Club President John Porter was elected at that AGM and he took part in the discussions re the need for a review, which involved several other interested bodies and included the BMC Officers; it was subsequently agreed by the National Council that an Organisational Review would be held during 2017/18. I believe that this was a mistake and it was a Future Policy review that was needed, for under the cloak of the former, major areas have either been passed over or ignored; particularly staffing which is the largest cost centre within the Council’s budget, research into the possible effects of Olympic recognition, the best geographic location for the Council, the future of the relations with Sport England and Sport UK, and a long term view of financing.
However over that period of time more information spilled out about the failed name change. The grant aid to carry this out had been received from Sport England in February 2016, and as someone who had negotiated such grants for special projects from The Sports Council/s for many years I noted this must have been applied for quite some weeks previous? Yet at the BMC AGM in March 2016 no attempt was made to seek approval for such a fundamental decision as a possible name change. Subsequently once this proposed action had become wider known it was overwhelmingly rejected by the membership.
At which some former BMC senior members decided to take action and openly demonstrate their criticism of how the Council was being administered, and two ex-Presidents Bob Pettigrew and Mark Vallance agreed that they would do this by putting a motion of No Confidence in the Executive at the BMC AGM of April 2017, which was signed by 30 members. I was one of the signatures and had no thought that this motion would be successful, but following on from what had happened at Harrison’s and contradictions in the few other areas in which I still kept an interest, namely the Constitution of the International Federation of Sport Climbing which the BMC had acceded to, which includes the possibility of competitions being held on outdoor crags, this in direct contradiction to the long agreed policy of the Council in opposing any such action. And at the first suggestion that climbing might be recognised by the IOC as an Olympic sport, I had contacted the BMC and advised this might be a game changer. Believing it needed a full investigation of how it might impact our sport for good or bad? I was assured that this would be forthcoming, and a paper prepared which would be widely circulated. That was some years ago now and nothing as yet appeared. So I felt justified in signing the motion and like the others involved believed that this was a plea for properly functioning AGM’s, where all important developments and proposals are put before the membership.
Author Dennis Gray and Pete Boardman: Photo DG
Unfortunately in this age of instant report, and social media the reaction to the Motion of No Confidence put to the BMC AGM held at Plas y Brenin in April 2017 was argued about completely out of hand. At least it assured a large turnout, but in the fog of a badly structured debate fences were not mended. I was sorry this led on to the President Rehan Siddiqui resigning. Someone I had known as a friend since he and his brother started to climb; and their father likewise who faithfully attended at the National Mountaineering Conferences in Buxton when I was at the BMC. An event that happened that evening in the PyB bar is without precedent in my own association with the Council, for Bob Pettigrew was physically assaulted by the Hon Secretary of one of the BMC Areas who believed that this was his just desserts for his part in the Motion of No Confidence!
Subsequently the police were involved and the woman carrying out the attack was interviewed and then apologised. However she was not the only person who should have been brought to book over this, for it had been pre-planned earlier that day by a group which surprisingly included several persons who held positions of influence. Equally to be criticised is the social media activity of those with close connections at the Council, trolling and attacking those they disagree with, hiding under pseudonyms from which they were subsequently ‘outed’ by other computer geeks, confirming their insider positions. From which a picture emerges of an organisation that in the recent past has not been efficiently administered or monitored, particularly the senior staff and some of the elected officers. At least Management by a Board of Directors might be expected to make sure that best practice now ensues over such matters as process and organisational procedures.
Peter Boardman warned when he was the National Officer of the BMC that ‘we were creating a monster!’ And once again long term friendships involved me getting embroiled in a manner I had not intended. I was copied into correspondence by a Climbers’ Club member, for worried by the recent data protection legislation he was not willing for his personal details to be sent on to the BMC, fearing that with its new market philosophy his data might be misused? Currently within the Council’s Articles, each club must pay and affiliate all its UK members at a cost of £14.25 each. The response of the CC President and Treasurer to their member’s refusal to do this surprised me, they declared that the BMC ‘is our governing body and there is no alternative to not affiliating’. So the climber involved found himself parting from a Club he had been a member of for many years. It is not true that the BMC is a governing body in such matters (it is only so for its competition activities), it is a representative body.
There had been previous debate about the need or not for Clubs to affiliate all their UK members. And in 2008/9 this was discussed within the then recently formed Clubs Committee but ended by not resolving the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. An amount of the £14.25 affiliation fee is handed over to its Brokers by the BMC to provide each Club member with Public Liability insurance. Over the last five years £1.25 million in premiums has been so handed over for the whole Council membership (currently 85,000 approximately), but Individuals who pay more than Club members are also covered for accidents. The claims for these in the last five years amounted to £86,500. There have been no (so far) Public Liability ones.
Once again I felt I had to act, I do not believe that Club members should be forced into affiliation of the BMC, it should be by choice. The majority will, but a sizeable minority for various reasons do not wish to do so! I decided to put forward a motion to that effect at the Alpine Club AGM held this last November, but because the Committee felt that Public Liability insurance for its members is important, they decided to oppose this and advised the members to vote against my motion claiming that if any UK members were allowed to do this it would undermine the PL insurance for all the other members. Frankly that is not true, as the person who with Fred Smith set up the original BMC insurance scheme in 1975/6 and who attended subsequently many meetings with the brokers and on occasion underwriters over the years, I know that such schemes are not so inflexible. Interestingly Mountaineering Scotland Clubs do have the ability to do as I was requesting, namely if any member moves away or becomes inactive in their Club, they can keep up their membership without affiliating to that representative body. I have already reported my motion was roundly outvoted, despite it being seconded by a former President, Stephen Venables and supported by a roll call of distinguished climbers, including an honorary member and former President of the BMC.
So the moving finger writes and moves on! The problems as I see them at the BMC are not going away; an indicator of this is that fewer active climbers with good organisational skill and experience are coming forward to take up the vacant positions of Area Secretaries and Chairs. A list was recently circulated of these, and I have never previously seen so many vacancies. It is also difficult to persuade nationally known figures to take on such as the Presidency. In passing I have spoken to some of these and they are not willing to take on this task, for they realise it has now become the kind of commitment that would be too demanding of their time. However Alan Blackshaw could do this whilst master minding an answer to the countries energy crisis in 1973/4 and he was later in charge of the Offshore, North Sea Operations. In between times he was writing the Penguin Guide to Mountaineering. Something that Alan noted on several occasions, warning his successors to BMC Honorary Office, is that if you professionalise too much of the Council’s operation, and maybe with a staff of 30+ this is now the case, it will become ever harder to recruit qualified volunteers, who will not be willing to take on tasks that lie within the job description of the Pros?
A final word, I believe the danger now facing the BMC (and Mountaineering Scotland) is that a large tail is wagging what is in reality a much smaller body. Many thousands of people, including children on a basis similar to gymnastics, are now taking part in indoor climbing, and sport climbing is now more popular than trad and bouldering is more so than both of these two activities. Competition climbing I believe will enjoy a massive fillip from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and noting current developments where in my own City Leeds we now have seven indoor walls, four of which are bouldering only, a phenomena that is happening UK wide; many of these developments having occurred in recent years. It might make sense to these innovators to break away and form a new National body, covering competitions and sport climbing. This is what happened at the UIAA (the world representative body of mountaineering), where the IFSC broke away and is now recognised by the IOC as the world body of Competition Climbing. I do not wish for this to happen, but when I note how the BMC is currently promoting itself, I have just watched their Christmas TV YouTube, and as Phil Bartlett has previously observed, their presentation is child like (cbeebies comes to mind?), it may be inevitable?
A major new indoor climbing centre is a big bucks operation, and those behind these developments are no longer just amateur climbers turning their hands into something new, they are now in most cases seriously involved investors and entrepreneurs. I know some of these personally, and they are acting in a separate parallel universe. There is a lack of updated BMC policy guidelines and no overview of where these developments are leading? I was once Chair of the British Administrators of Sport, and at that time climbing unlike most other sports had only a single national body in England and Wales.
Some sports like Martial Arts had many, and unless the BMC appropriately covers, and administers efficiently all the present activities under the umbrella of ‘Climbing’ it may suffer the same fate? It is up to a new generation of climbers to organise a body that meets these criteria whilst preserving the long standing traditions/history of our sport, so widely admired by other countries activists, whilst not being so cowed as to disagree with Sport England about their undemocratic modus operandi. Who at the end of the day are answerable to politicians, and they are more interested in the views of their constituents and preserving their seats, than if the BMC President chairs the Council’s management board or not!
Dennis Gray: 2019