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Is this the BMC’s Corbyn moment?

British Mountaineering Council board faces no-confidence motion – https://www.grough.co.uk/magazine/2017/02/28/british-mountaineering-council-board-faces-no-confidence-motion

Mr Corbyn said the ballot had “no constitutional legitimacy” and said he would not “betray” the members who voted for him by resigning.

BBC, Jun 2016

In the last year the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has faced a torrid time; the Climb Britain u-turn, and now a potential 40% Sport England funding cut, a proposed Alpine Club Special General Meeting and a guerilla ‘vote of no confidence‘.  Is this a storm in a teacup, is the board “betraying” the members, or are these all just red herrings?

I’ve been a BMC member for many years (and Alpine Club and Climber’s Club), and there is no doubt that it is an incredibly valuable organisation.  The access and conservation work, lobbying and negotiations done on behalf of members, and indeed all those accessing the mountains and the crags, is precious.  Beyond that technical, safety and advisory work, equity, training, youth, guidebooks are all run by a committed team of officers, staff and volunteers.

The BMC does this work incredibly effectively, however, it needs money to do it.  The pressures of increased participation, of climbing becoming more mainstream, of rising commercialisation, of climbing in the Olympics, all represent risks for the BMC, and in time, represent risks to the core issues members care most about.  However, as much as they are risks, they are opportunities to be captured, and thus risks contained.  Containing these risks costs money, and without acting now to capture those opportunities, this might not be a storm in a teacup, it could be the perfect storm…  Here’s why:

Participation is rising

The sport as a whole has been on an upwards trend since 2005 – last year mountaineering was one of only four sports to show an increase in participation.

Guardian, Jun 2012

Sport England measure participation across Climbing and Mountaineering defined as: Climbing & mountaineering: climbing indoor, climbing rock, mountaineering, mountaineering high altitude, hill trekking, hill walking, bouldering, mountain walking

It’s undeniable that participation has significantly increased.  The hills are busier, the honeypot crags are busier, the walls are busier, and indoor climbing is growing; four new walls have appeared in London in the last quarter.  The statistics are even clearer.


Active People Survey (2006 – 2016): Adults in England (age 16 plus) who have taken part in the sport at moderate intensity for 30 minutes or more at least once in the last week (at least four days out of the previous 28 days).

Mapping these against BMC membership statistics from their 2015 annual report shows that:

Membership numbers are not rising in line with participation

Download the raw data

Of course, there are numerous discussions that can be had about comparison of such data and Sport England’s methodology, but that being what is available, it seems there’s a clear trend that participation is increasing at a rate much greater than membership is increasing.

Sport England’s investment has two aims – to increase the number of people taking part in indoor and outdoor versions of the sport while helping more talented young climbers get to the top.

Sport England, 2013

Increase in BMC membership is broadly linear and Sport England funding did increase participation in the last funding cycle, but this did not relate to a proportional increase in BMC membership.

This year Sport England changed its survey strategy from from Active People to Active Lives.  Not only is there a change in methodology, their funding strategy is focussed mainly on inactivity and hard to reach areas, rather than participation.

Active Lives Survey (2016 onwards): Adults (aged 16+) who have taken part in sport and physical activity at least twice in the last 28 days.

It’s important to note that Sport England are clear that: “Active Lives will report some measures of physical activity using the same definition as Active People. However, because the surveys have quite different designs, they will report different results. We would therefore advise against attempting to make comparisons between the two datasets.”

Based on the latest set of Active Lives Survey figures there are 2.14 million people participating in Climbing and Mountaineering at least twice per month, amazingly, comparable with football.  With current BMC membership at around 80k, this represents a membership of 4% against overall ‘participation’.  Of course these figures include a broad range: Climbing & mountaineering: climbing indoor, climbing rock, mountaineering, mountaineering high altitude, hill trekking, hill walking, bouldering, mountain walking, which are all within the BMC’s remit.  In the absence of other figures, let’s call 2.14 million the current market potential.

Of this 2.14 million, it is broken down in the following way (sum total > 2.14 million due to overlap of participation in the breakdown categories):

  • 1,967,788 hill walking
  • 106,945 outdoor climbing
  • 171,112 indoor climbing

Clearly, hillwalking is responsible for the majority of these figures, with participation in indoor climbing overtaking outdoor climbing.

Sport England funding cuts

The BMC announced (via a randomly selected survey monkey) that it is facing a potential 40% cut in funding from Sport England this year.   Sport England have reduced funding across the board due to a fall in lottery ticket purchases and the cuts in Sport England funding may be entirely justified based on this, and the changes in allocation methodology, although:

However, all governing bodies will be eligible to bid for further Sport England funding to target other types of customers, such as those who are less active, so feasibly funding pots could be increased.

Sports Management, Dec 16

It’s important to remember that the BMC is constituted as, and operates as, a representative membership body and not a Governing Body, however it is currently treated as such for the purposes of Sport England and UK Sport funding. How representative of all participants it is could be questioned by these figures given 96% of participants are not BMC members.  Final Sport England funding decisions have not yet been announced and so we await the BMC’s response regarding which funding streams have been applied for, Sport England’s feedback on the strength application and whether or not funding has been cut at a higher proportional rate to other organisations.

Climbing is in the Olympics

Indoor climbing participation is higher than that of outdoor climbing, we have a world champion, and we have Olympic medal prospects.  We have incredible advocates and ambassadors like Shauna Coxsey and Matthew Phillips, among many others, who are inspiring to young (and old) people.  Olympic inclusion is only likely to drive this trend further.  UK Sport (also lottery funded) will announce its funding decisions in the next few weeks.  The BMC should support and harness the advocacy of these athletes.

Of course, there are factions within the BMC, and within the sport, that loathe competition climbing.  Climbing is in the Olympics in 2020, that is a fact, and it is an opportunity and a risk.  Whether or not all climbers like competition or indoor climbing is no longer relevant.  Climbing is a broad church, and indoor climbing has a greater and growing congregation.

The main route into climbing is now from climbing walls, some climbers may never experience outdoor climbing.  We should accept that this fact is not incompatible with supporting those who want to make the transition to climbing outside in an educated way.  However, the BMC needs them as members first to do that.

Subscriptions from members are the core funding mechanism for the BMC

62% of the BMC’s funding comes from membership subscriptions.  The potential £120k Sport England shortfall cautioned recently is, based on revenue at £31.50 per member, 4000 new members (rounded as before, that’s still 4% of total participation stats).  By example, £3 million in income (i.e a BMC sustained solely from subscriptions) is less than 100k individual members (that’s 4.7% of participation).

Sport England funding is usually ring-fenced funding, and one could make the argument that it shouldn’t affect other areas of the BMC.  However, a total budget cut, usually means a cut elsewhere as budgets are re-adjusted down the line, and the reach and scale of the organisation decreases.

Clubs pay £15.75 per member as a BMC affiliate fee.  Club members don’t receive personal accident insurance and receive three less issues of summit per year.  From personal market knowledge personal accident insurance costs around £1 per year, and the cost of summit is approx 70p per edition, per person.  Therefore the clear hypothesis is that individual members are providing a subsidy to club memberships.

Club membership is largely static in numbers, with an ageing average membership (with the obvious exception of university clubs).  If indoor climbing walls are the new clubs, then the opportunity exists in partnerships with climbing walls.

The clear route to sustainability, and reducing pressures on securing external funding streams, is in increasing subscription revenue, and member life time value (LTV).

From a purely commercial point of view, more members also means more strength in negotiations with insurers, more strength in affiliate partnerships and more money to increase the value proposition.

The value proposition (perceived value for money) needs to improve

To me, the BMC fee is essentially a charitable donation. I joined to support access and conservation, to support talent pathways, to support guidebooks that aren’t necessarily commercially viable, to support safety and technical research.  For many, it is to solely gain access to insurance.  It might be that the discounts in stores will recover the subscription fee, but better discounts are otherwise available.  If a subscription feels solely charitable, or for “a good cause”, it signals to me that the value proposition is too weak and won’t be attractive to the 96%.

Commercial affinity partnerships (The BMC have recently hired into this role) are one way to increasing the membership offering.  In my view, refactoring the subscriptions, and insurances, into multiple tailored packages to make them more relevant to individual hillwalkers, indoor climbers, outdoor climbers and mountaineers is a requirement to increasing the value perception to current, and prospective members.

The Climb Britain re-brand was a disaster, whichever way you look at it

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The Climb Britain re-brand was well intended, but poorly executed.  Whilst the BMC has strong brand recognition with members, and internationally, and it holds a lot of tradition, a quick google of “BMC” will example the branding challenges the BMC faces in making it more relevant to climbers broadly.  Whether or not Climb Britain was the right brand, the execution of the strategy clearly went awry and the lack of consultation alienated members.

The political and economic climate is likely to drive up access, conservation and lobbying needs and costs further

However, funding in 2020 will be as much as a fifth below 2010 levels, said the study, even before inflation is taken into account

Among the parks affected were the Peak District, with annual funding cut from £8.3m to £6.3m, and the Lake District from £6.9m to £5.2m.

BBC, Dec 2016

With broader economic and political pressures, this funding decline is likely to continue beyond 2020. This could easily lead to further risks to access and the conservation needs of climbers, and therefore increased costs to the BMC in this area in order to lobby to protect the interests of all climbers, hillwalkers and mountaineers.  As a key priority area for the BMC members it needs the resource able to deal with this directly.

What next?

In the last decade, climbing has gone through a huge transition, from an underground adventure culture, to a mainstream activity.

The BMC must react to that before the real issues are affected.  Changing the status quo, is about making things better.  There is no doubt that the leadership rightly want to maintain the core areas, supporting access and conservation, but the BMC must use increasing participation and the changes to the sport as an opportunity.

I am not supporting an ill-conceived (draft) motion of no-confidence, but this an alarm bell for the direction of travel the BMC.  Having the debate is important, however, at this point in time debates about:

  • Whether climbing being in the Olympics is a good thing or not, are a red-herring
  • Whether indoor climbing is a good thing or not, are a red-herring
  • Supporting a world class Team GB or not, are a red-herring

The real issue here is that, in not fully realising the trends above are unlikely to reverse, and not acting on the potential in these opportunities means putting the BMC on a continued path to low or no growth in a growing market. This puts at risk the very issues that those concerned about commercialisation, the olympics and sport regulation, are arguing a conservative approach on.  The opportunity is to attract, support, educate and influence new members, not to act conservatively and only in the interests of current membership.

The BMC needs to actively seek to be more attractive to hillwalkers, indoor climbers and younger people. To not do so risks splitting an organisation into different representative units, all potentially competing for resources and members.  This would repeat the errors of many other membership bodies, both internationally in climbing, and domestically in other sectors.

To not do so means the BMC will likely incur a higher cost to the core areas, potentially losing further external funding, leading to increased subscription fees and increased club affiliation fees.  This forces members to consider an already challenged value proposition.

The political and leadership battles

The BMC is clearly fighting an internal and external political battle, which it needs to weather, but does it have the diversity of decision makers able to make the tough decisions to represent all hillwalkers, climbers and mountaineers?

Without a clear future vision of what the BMC is, and a transparent strategy to increase membership significantly, it will otherwise be current members that, in the long term, suffer.  The BMC needs to become more holistically representative, and to refactor membership packages to support the individual types of members.  If that does not happen, the BMC governance and leadership is at risk of letting down the hard working staff, the volunteers, young people, Team GB, our potential olympic athletes and all participants of climbing, hillwalking and mountaineering.

If we’re already at the point where clubs are calling special general meetings to ask for strategic reviews, maybe it is already time to change the status quo, to stop the in-fighting, and boldly lead?  I can only hope that unlike Corbyn’s Labour, the constitution, governance and leadership of the BMC is strong enough to stop activists protesting it into insignificance.

Sources (further reading)

  1. https://www.sportengland.org/research/active-lives-survey/from-active-people-to-active-lives/
  2. https://www.sportengland.org/news-and-features/news/2017/january/26/active-lives-offers-fresh-insight/
  3. https://www.sportengland.org/media/11479/active-lives-faqs-website.pdf
  4. https://www.thebmc.co.uk/2015-bmc-annual-report-now-online
  5. https://www.grough.co.uk/magazine/2017/02/28/british-mountaineering-council-board-faces-no-confidence-motion
  6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38462686
  7. http://ukbouldering.com/board/index.php/topic,27760.225.html


  1. Ian Hogg says:

    Great article John. Thanks for writing.

    Things are changing quickly, and it sometimes feels large sections of the sector are very unprepared, or even resistant. You’re right to highlight the perceived threats as opportunities if embraced. It will be interesting to see what happens.

    PS you angling for a BMC board place? 🙂

  2. Simon Richardson says:

    Excellent article John, thank you. Up here in Scotland, Mountaineering Scotland (formerly MCofS) are facing similar challenges.

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