Dave Simpson adds his thoughts to TAC56's analysis of the Mountain Bothies Association's troubles
The MBA's sometimes spectacular renovation projects rightly receive publicity (when this is fashionable) and (usually) praise. Routine maintenance work, in contrast, is much less reported - again, rightly so, since it is generally more akin to DIY than major building work and very seldom involves helicopters. My own practical MBA experience has been entirely in maintenance, and may be of some interest.
On behalf of the Braes o' Fife Mountaineering Club, I was appointed as Maintenance Organiser (MO) for Suardalan in 1978. I carried out this role for 23 years until being effectively sacked in 2001. During that time the Braes o' Fife averaged two or three work parties a year, with a small group of us keeping the bothy wind- and water-tight, repairing the effects of age and vandalism, gradually stab-ilising the structure and reinstating flooring and panelling lost before the original renovation. Our work parties were generally small-scale and low cost - a useful rule of thumb is that £50 worth of timber is all that a car roof rack can safely carry - but "little and often" proved effective. I can recall many compliments, but very few complaints, about the state of the bothy during our stewardship.
For much of this time the MBA operated on a very informal but perfectly satisfactory basis. An MO who wanted assistance could get it. I twice consulted "the experts" on technical points (woodworm treatment and replacement roof joists) and on both occasions received very useful advice. Had a job required more labour than our club could provide, then a work party request would have been pub-licised. An MO who was coping and content was largely left alone. An MO who was clearly not coping would have been spoken to, assisted and, if necessary, ultimately replaced.
This happy state of affairs began to change around the time that the area structure was instigated. Middle management was created in the form of an Area Organiser (AO) who was responsible to the MBA management committee for all the bothies on his or her patch. Inevitably, this meant that the AO required more-or-less regular reports from the MOs. Meetings were called for this purpose but attendance was often poor. My first AO, Craig Caldwell, took the pragmatic step of having a regular phone chat with each of his MOs. This worked quite well.
Later AOs and the management committee took a different line. Paperwork was required. Formal returns and declarations had to be submitted, without which payments would not be made for materials. This gave us little difficulty, however, since our costs were relatively low and we had rarely claimed reimbursement. (I suspect that this is not uncommon considering how little it actually costs the MBA for routine maintenance of nearly 100 bothies.) Avoiding the bureaucracy had other advantages. About this time the MO for Callater Stable experienced the infamous case of The Half Sheet Of Plasterboard Which Was Unaccounted For - a farce which went the length of a formal complaint to the charity commissioners. We felt we were well out of it.
Of course it could not last. West Highlands Area was deemed to be "not working properly". A new AO, Grant Ritchie, took over. Appalled by the apparent lack of organisation, he made a tour of "his" bothies. Much to his surprise, he found them all in good condition! Nobody seemed to draw the obvious lesson - that it is the state of the bothies which matters, rather than the state of the organisation.
After a period Ritchie resigned and the area had no formal AO for around two years. This had minimal impact on maintenance activity. Another AO, Mike Pratt, eventually took over under instructions to "sort out" the situation. MOs were sent a standard letter to the effect that failure to respond would be taken to imply that they no longer wished to act as MOs. "MO Vacancies" adverts then appeared in the journal.
I immediately phoned Colin Scales, MBA chairman at the time, with whom I thought I had a reasonable relationship. I confirmed that I had at no stage tendered my resignation and asked for his help in sorting out the problem. While apparently sympathetic and suggesting other contacts to approach, the effective message was: "the deselection process, having started, cannot be stopped". Attempts by the Braes o' Fife's then president were equally futile. He offered among other things to volunteer his own name as MO if that would satisfy MBA procedures and allow the club to continue to maintain Suardalan on an official basis. The responses by Roger Muhl (then acting correspondence secretary and also, I believe, author of the "ultimatum" letter) rejected all offers of compromise in an increasingly arrogant and condescending manner. The MBA's newsletters, meanwhile, continued to lament the lack of volunteers for AO and MO posts.
It seems to me that the underlying cause of much of the MBA's recent difficulties lies in the inevitable conflict between those MOs and ordinary bothygoers who tend to be somewhat independently minded, and certain MBA office bearers who take pleasure in telling other people what to do. Of course "health and safety" is cried in justification of the "need" for management and control. This is a wonderfully convenient argument since it allows the wannabe manager to say "This is forced on me - I've really no choice - I'm really keeping your paperwork to the minimum, honestly", while anyone who argues can be deemed irresponsible and reckless. Thus any sensible debate is stifled and "officially approved" procedures become increasingly unrealistic.
Will the recent MBA "regime change" inject more common sense? I doubt it, but I would be happy to be proved wrong. I have very little interest in MBA politics - I just want to see well-maintained open bothies. I do see one real danger, however: if at some point the MBA's centralised control system collapses it is quite likely that many bothies will be left untended. In my view, a much less centralised routine maintenance network, consisting of "Friends" of individual bothies, would be more resilient, with the MBA acting as an umbrella body offering public relations, technical advice and grant funding as required. This sort of idea would no doubt be vehemently opposed by those of the "command and control" persuasion, but might it not in the long run be better for the bothies?
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