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The Future Of Caving Clubs

In this article, a word of warning is sounded about the possible dangers to caving clubs, and a guide to their avoidance.

by S.J. Collins.

Reader 's views are welcome on the above subject

The Club System

A caving club designed to suit its particular needs seems to rank highly among the requirements of the average caver.  One has only to glance at the lists of clubs which are published from time to time to realise just how many clubs are operating on Mendip today.  It is certain that there are more clubs at present than there were cavers when I personally started to cave.

Now it is considerably easier for a small group of young cavers to join an existing club than it is for them to start a new one. Apart from all the obvious snags like getting hold of tackle, their club is bound to lack many of the less tangible advantages built up over the years by the larger and more well established clubs.

In spite of this, quite a proportion of cavers have preferred to take the hard way, and this process has been going on here on Mendip almost as long as has caving.  The case appears to be well made that some cavers have been, and still are, prepared to go to considerable lengths to construct clubs to suit their particular requirements rather than to join ready-made clubs.

There are, of course very many new cavers who prefer to join existing clubs - and have quite a large choice. For this choice - or indeed, that of founding their own club, to be effective - clubs must, like individuals, have distinct personalities and differ from each other by all the usual attributes such as age; experience; character; wealth; influence and the like.

Thus, whatever the outlook of any individual caver might be, the fact that he can exercise considerable choice in the type of organisation he joins or creates represents a freedom well worth preserving.

Unfortunately, there are factors which - if one takes a pessimistic view - could well lead to the destruction of the club system and if, as I have contended, cavers value the existence of the club system; it will be instructive (to say the least of it) to examine what is happening and what may well happen in the near future, so that clubs can act in a manner which will preserve them.  This applies equally to their dealing with each other as to their approach to bodies external to them.

Forces Acting Against The Club System

These can be reduced to three main forces, all of which can be made to reinforce each other, which fact should be borne in mind constantly when considering them individually.

  1. Access. The main difference between caving and climbing is that caving is extremely vulnerable to control by access.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to put a ring of barbed wire right round a whole mountainous area; but ridiculously easy to control the specific and narrow entrance points to caves.  Thus, any body which gained significant control of cave entrances in a caving area would be in a position to dictate terms to caving clubs and, if it wished, to control them completely.
  2. Finance. For many older clubs, the days of operating on a shoestring are now part of their history.  Such clubs have heavy outgoings such as rates; insurance; maintenance etc., and must operate on a reasonable scale merely to keep afloat.  This makes them financially sensitive and any real curtailment of their operations could quickly result in a financial crisis from which an interested external body might agree to rescue them - at a price.  This is the same technique as pushing a man into a river and then offering to pull him out in return for certain concessions.  This could well be used as another lever by which control could be exercised against the wishes of a caving club.
  3. Centralisation. A situation could well arise in which the loyalties of club members were gradually weakened by the activities of central bodies.  This is likely to take the form of a gradual erosion of club functions and - like all insidious processes - it will be tempting to ignore it until it becomes too late.  If this actually happened, and clubs were thus persuaded to destroy themselves, it could be argued that they had merely exercised their own free choice in the matter.  Against this line of argument, most of the older clubs owe a considerable debt to past (but still interested) members who have worked hard to build up that club and who would hardly be expected to welcome its destruction by its present members.

The Present State Of Affairs

Already, the three factors discussed have begun to affect caving clubs.  Taking access first, considerable progress has been made in the north towards replacing individual arrangements between land owners and cavers by a form of centralised access control.  Much more rapidly than I would have believed possible, we have seen the start of the abuse of power, as demonstrated by the Northern Council.  Far from learning any lesson from this on Mendip, we are in the process of taking the first steps towards a similar situation.

To those who argue that the Caving Councils are not external bodies but are merely the clubs of a region acting in concert, I would say that this may be true NOW but there is little guarantee that it will continue to be so in the future.  There are a number of organisations which have interests in caving and are not based on the club system.  The current Wessex Journal, which I would urge members to read, deals with one such group - that of the education system - to which we might well add scouting; various other youth organisations and the like.  Bodies such as the police (concerned with rescue organisations) and even local and national government departments would all find it easier to be represented on a single, central body through which they can exercise the greater degree of control that they might well start to consider desirable. The time could well arrive when the clubs, who formed the councils in the first place, found themselves in a minority on them.  Frankenstein, I seem to remember, found himself in a similar predicament.

On the financial front, no club is as yet anywhere near dependant on external funding - although several have had building grants, which may have started a taste for free handouts.  In this connection, it is of interest to see how the N.C.A. - a club controlled body, remember! - has so far used its money.  The bulk of this has gone to the scheme for Caving Instruction, which will result in the creation of a group of people who feel that they owe their authority to a central body rather than to any club.  The thin end, perhaps, of a very large wedge.

The very existence of a central authority tends to weaken local enterprise, even if it has no real teeth. Look for example, at the curious reluctance of Mendip surveyors to run counter to the C.R.G. in spite of the fact that nearly all of them are in some way dissatisfied with its policy.

Possible Future Developments

The way by which these factors may gain momentum until the club system is finally broken is best illustrated by a look into an imaginary future.  The only assumptions necessary are that the N.C.A. exercises effective control of cave access and contains sufficient people who desire the end of club caving.  Neither of these assumptions is, in my opinion, a severe extrapolation.

We thus have a position whereby clubs can be threatened by sanctions if they fail to implement central policies.  One can see clubs being 'recommended' to use 'qualified' cave instructors as a first move. Gradually, certificates of competence would become the norm - finishing up with an almost exact parallel to the Driving Test and M.O.T.

Having saturated the market for Instructors, the general appeal to safety - always a good emotional bet - might be next centred on tackle with the creation of 'recommended' standards of tackle and a central inspectorate to ensure its enforcement. This will require some full-time staff who will, to start with, have spare time on their hands which they will want to use to their best advantage.  The creation of a number of departments and committees of this central body would be one of the obvious outcomes of this state of affairs.  Thus, a club, for example, wishing to dig at a certain spot might well have to satisfy the Research and Exploration Committee, the Local Authorities Land Utilisation Co-ordinating Committee and the Cave Preservation and Environmental Control Committee for a start.  Needless to say, unauthorised caving of any sort would result in an enquiry with the possibility of individual suspension of licences or even the suspension of a club, if group culpability were proved.

Centralised cave and hut bookings for 'away' trips might well help some permanent official to fill up his day and increase his importance.  No doubt, a national journal would be started at about this stage.

The substitution of donations from clubs by a levy based on membership would provide yet another weapon to be used against such clubs who still showed an unacceptable degree of independence.  In this connection, Treasurers would be required to submit a standardised balance sheet and would thus find themselves, along with tackle officers, caving secretaries and hut wardens, effectively working for the central body.

Soon, clubs would be asked to adopt a model constitution, so that anomalies could be removed between clubs. By this time, the final blow would go almost unnoticed.  It would be called 'Rationalisation of Regional Assets' and would result in the creation of single regional headquarters having a full-time warden. The club system would be over.

Possible Counter-Moves

A heavy responsibility rests on all who control caving clubs if they wish to prevent something like that just described from actually taking place in the future.  Detailed action will of course, depend on the circumstances and the nature of the particular threat involved at anyone time.  It is, however, possible to imagine some general guidelines, which are listed below:-

  1. Keep informed:  It should be the duty of all who are concerned with the running of clubs to make themselves aware of all the moves which are being made or projected even if they have no apparent bearing on the situation.  In particular, those who represent clubs on the councils must understand fully the mechanism by which those councils work.  One of the main weapons of the organisational man is his ability to use procedural points to reduce the opposition.
  2. Look ahead:  A good chess player tries to work out the long term effects of his move, because he knows that short term advantages may prove detrimental in the long run.  The same type of thinking should guide clubs.  For example, if a club cannot do caves in the North as it used to because of access restrictions imposed by the Northern Council; should it join the Northern Council, or accept some immediate disadvantages?  Arguments in favour of joining may be that the influx of other clubs will alter majority decisions in that council.  Arguments against may be that if all clubs joined all councils, the way would be open for their abolition on the grounds that they were now all the same and that a single body could now replace them.  Careful thought on these sorts of lines is necessary for EVERY decision.
  3. Respect other Clubs:  While a certain competitive element is a natural part of the club way of life, it must be recognised that working away at removing another club's advantages which your club does not possess can eventually rebound on your own club.  The process of levelling down does most clubs nothing but harm eventually.  You joined your club by exercising your choice.  Make sure that a choice of the sort you enjoyed is not taken away from cavers of the future by this type of action.
  4. Take, and keep, the initiative:  Where you cannot prevent things occurring which are to the detriment of the club system, the only counter measure is to set up equivalent ones BASE ON THE CLUBS.  Thus, if some sort of competence document looks as if it cannot be avoided; it is better for clubs to take it upon themselves to organise a scheme than to have one forced down their throats.  Keeping one jump ahead without panicking is difficult but not impossible.
  5. Cultivate personal contacts.  If representatives of clubs can only meet under ‘officialÂ’ circumstances, a degree of stiffness is introduced which does not allow people to exchange ideas as freely as does informal between friends.  If all club officials were on a beer buying basis with each other, many suspicions and misunderstandings would be removed and cooperation could occur without letting in the beaurocrats.
  6. Remember who you represent:  If you are convinced that nothing you can do will save, or affect, the situation; you owe it to the members who elected you to look after their interests to tell them that you see no point in trying to stave off the inevitable.  This at least gives them the opportunity to decide whether they still want you to represent them.  If you really believe that it is already too late to save you club, then it is dishonest not to say so.