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The Future Of The Bristol Exploration Club!

A Committee viewpoint

The following is an article by Dave Irwin, known to most of you as Wig.  It is published with the knowledge and endorsement of the present committee.  It concerns a forthcoming questionnaire that will be sent direct to you in the near future. It will probably be ignored by most of you as it is to do with caving politics.  However if you have read this far the committee would ask you to read on and not adopt the head in the sand attitude of - "It doesn't concern me".  Some of you might remember a previous heads in the sand time when the issue of SSSI's and the NCC was ignored with dire consequences.  Two of the caves closed at that time have never been reopened.

Chris Smart


Re-structuring for British Caving

Dave Irwin

As far as cavers are concerned politics is the last subject they want to read in their caving magazine but I’m afraid that the situation OUT THERE is past ignoring and that you read on - bored or not or, at least, turn the page and read the last paragraph!


The argument that NCA needs re-structuring to reflect the current interests of cavers throughout the country continues.  In all regions, including many of the constituent members of NCA, it is generally believed that an overhaul must take place.  Even the most conservative CSCC (Council of Southern Caving Clubs) of which the BEC is a member, believes that some form of change should take place. Others, already pre-empting the situation are calling for individual caver membership and club membership.


Now for some indisputable facts.  In all the discussions I've been involved with in the last couple of years there is a general agreement on the STRUCTURE of a national body.  The constituent bodies i.e. the regional bodies (CNCC, DCA, CCC, CSCC, CDG, BCRA, BCRC etc.) will remain basically the same as now. The regional variations of cave access and other local difficulties are best handled by regional bodies, perhaps with different geographic boundaries to those existing at the moment, each having total autonomy but accountable to the annual meeting of it's own structure and, if necessary, to the annual meeting of the national association. It is also generally agreed that the executive should have the powers to act as an executive without the need to have to refer everything to the constituent bodies before progressing the problem.


Many of you will remember the questionnaires issued by the NCA Working Party on the possible re-structuring of the Association.  The results clearly showed the requirements of cavers and apart from a couple of issues all were currently carried out by NCA. e.g. Sports Council Grants for expeditions (administered on behalf of NCA by Ghar Parau Foundation) grants to maintain entrances, contact with external organisations both national and international and NCA have almost completed a third party insurance policy that is much better than BCRA's and so on.  On the training front there is little support for national training or commercial training. The second questionnaire clearly showed that the club was the best place for this to be done.  That is not to say that locally organised events by NCA is not out of the question - two such events will be held on Mendip during the Autumn of this year.


The point of disagreement is HOW THE EXECUTIVE SHOULD BE ELECTED.  Don't let anyone try to persuade you otherwise that the WHOLE structure requires overhauling.  It doesn't and when protagonists of the individual member system are pressed you will find only minor differences of emphasis.  The electoral system is the root of the argument.  There are two basic structures being debated: INDIVIDUAL AND CLUB and on the other side CLUB ONLY.  Basically the followers of the individual caver membership believe that the CLUB HAS NO IMPORTANCE IN MODERN BRITISH CAVING BECAUSE OF BETTER TRANSPORTATION AND THE GENERAL USE OF SRT MAKING THE CAVER INDEPENDENT OF CLUB TACKLE. The growth of the independent non-club caver, particularly in the north is the core of the argument. They also believe that a NATIONAL CAVING CLUB should cover the needs of the modern caver.  In other words change its name to British Cave Research Association minus the research element - though many will retort it's not a caving club!  Some acknowledge that in certain areas of the country clubs still play an important part in the caving scene but in Yorkshire and Derbyshire we are led to believe that the influence of clubs is fast fading from the scene.  The supporter of individual membership has included the clubs in the voting structure rather begrudgingly but believes as the individual membership grows the influence of the club will fall by the way-side.  On the other-hand, even if the club influence is diminishing in the north it certainly IS not in the south who have the greatest number of cavers by far.

In my view, if the NCA was to suddenly change its membership system and adopt an individual member structure, it would take a long time to accumulate enough members to make the organisation a viable structure.  At least when the BCRA was formed it accumulated the membership of the two bodies that merged to form that organisation amounting to some 450 cavers.  What these supporters want is an overnight transition which is clearly impossible; it takes time to accumulate members - the caving world in Britain would be left in a vacuum.  Whatever membership system is adopted I feel that a phased transition is the only pragmatic solution.  What the supporter of the individual membership wants is to replace the NCA with the BCRA structure; there is no other conclusion.

Readers of the last issue of Caves and Caving will have seen an outburst from its editor - Andy Hall, inferring that the National Caving Association is a dinosaur and that it must go. Presumably he means that the structure should be the same as the British Cave Research Association - a monolithic and undemocratic structure.  Frankly how the BCRA and supporters can say that individual caver membership is a more democratic voting structure than the existing system when they only get some 30 or so members out of 1100 to attend their AGM beats me - hierarchy rules OK. Further how the BCRA Council can have the nerve to state that BCRA policy is to support a form of individual and club membership for the national body without reference to its members beats me. This form of arrogance would not be tolerated in a club - but as only 20 - 30 members attend their AGM who on BCRA Council worries.  If this resolution ever comes before the BCRA Annual Meeting then I suggest that the CLUB supporters flood the meeting and throw it out.


The other side of the coin are those that support a CLUB BASED STRUCTURE.  I firmly believe that the basis of British caving is still the club. Loyalty to one's club remains as strong today as it always was.  Club competition is still much to the fore, even though groups of cavers from various clubs frequently cave together.  Further, who is involved with most cave discoveries, maintain the entrances, sort out landowner problems etc. - in the vast majority of cases THE CLUB.  How clubs vote for the executive is a matter for further discussion.  FURTHER, IF THE INDIVIDUAL MEMBERSHIP IS THE ACCEPTED FORM OF ELECTING THE EXECUTIVE YOU WILL BE DISENFRANCHISED unless you are prepared to join the national organisation. At the moment you are represented by your club through your regional body.  For those cavers that do not belong to any formal club there is no reason why they cannot form themselves, for electoral purposes, into a non-aligned body and join in the same way as other clubs.

At the moment if you wish to have your say at national level you can easily contact your club representative and get it passed through the Regional Body direct to the NCA Executive. Try to persuade a national body comprised of individual members and, unless there is support from the officers you'll be a voice in the wilderness.  The existing system is unwieldy but it can be streamlined simply by enabling clubs to contact the national executive directly for consideration of any points they wish to be raised.  This allows you the club member to have a say in the national body directly through your club.  This boils down to allowing clubs to vote directly for officers and members of the executive and not rely on the Regional Council.


Eight cavers who are known to be worried at the state of the NCA arguments, now known as the 'gang-of-eight', were invited to a meeting in Derby during May to discuss the problems associated with NCA. The idea was good and I fully support it if their findings can help to resolve the current and seemingly endless round of arguments.  However, only one maintained that a club based structure was the best solution for membership to NCA - me!  Let me make it quite clear that those who support individual membership are very sincere in their beliefs and should not be the, subject of flippant criticism. Take their views seriously. During the next few months you will be receiving another questionnaire financed by the 'gang-of-eight' asking which voting system you would wish to see for a 'new type' NCA.  I urge you all, yes even all of us golden oldies, to spend 17p on a stamp and respond with a firm reply in support of club based membership for the National Caving Association and settle the matter once and for all.