Changing youth hostel democracy

Heading to London on a weekend set to be one of the hottest on record seemed to be a mistake, or an act of stupidity.

Especially as it meant leaving my home in the lovely Derbyshire Dales, a garden that needed watering and that wanted to be sat in, under a shady umbrella, accompanied by a glass of wine and the swifts that racket around the sky even on the hottest afternoon. But, in fact, it was curiosity.

Ever since it was founded, YHA has held an annual meeting. Most companies, organisations, political parties, clubs, and committees, of even the most obscure purposes, do. Annual meetings are a requirement, as inevitable as the seasons and as predictable as summer swifts.

YHA seems to manage to hold its on the best weekends of the year. Its meetings have also often been rancorous, bad tempered affairs. An early YHA member wrote that, after meetings, it was necessary to sweep out the cigarette butts that lay about, inches deep, on the floor.

Meetings went on into the night, only ending as closing time in pubs loomed. Meetings finished with just enough time for a quick pint at a nearby bar.

At the first annual meeting they argued about the name, they debated charging different rates for young people staying in youth hostels, and didn’t.

At other meetings they have agreed sweeping changes or refused them. They elect officers and give those men and women wide powers.

At annual meetings, old friends meet up and gather. They can be a kind of reunion, and have been places where new friendships were made. YHA has always talked, YHA has always been about friendship.

For more than 20 years YHA has been shifting slowly towards widening its democracy, giving its members a more and more direct role in its affairs, part of a long journey to modernise itself, to attract a newer, younger group of users and to truly make itself open to all.

Heading to this year’s meeting, I was curious to see what might have changed. Last year YHA made sweeping changes, opened its voting procedures to all members.

Where once to attend the annual meeting had been a privilege for a select few members, now any YHA member could attend. How much difference would any of it make?

YHA meeting circa 1960

YHA started out as a participative democracy. Becoming a YHA member didn’t only mean staying in its hostels. Members ran YHA, took decisions, ran hostels.

Associations like YHA were power houses for change, not just in social conditions, but also in equipping members with skills to run committees, to manage businesses, to take minutes, prepare agendas, and to make decisions, all vital skills for running any kind of enterprise.

After the heady growth of YHA’s early years, around the 1960s YHA began changing.

Fewer people involved themselves in running YHA. Members looked for a relationship with YHA that was transactional, financial and mechanical. They paid money for a night in a hostel and had little interest, or none, in much more than that.

Often they discovered even that limited relationship was less and less satisfying. YHA was getting out of date, its buildings uncomfortable, poorly maintained and sometimes not even very clean.

As in so many areas of life in Britain, demands for change became insistent, too loud to be ignored. In YHA, a threatened strike by hostel staff forced reality on the association.

YHA agreed increases to the pay of its staff that it couldn’t afford. Financial collapse and bankruptcy loomed over at least three of YHA’s regional groups, and threatened YHA’s future.

YHA began a long journey to modernise itself, bringing in professional staff to run its affairs, introducing modern business methods and sweeping away what appeared to be years of tradition.

YHA National Council 1980s

The years since 1980 have been full of pain for YHA as it was forced to sell treasured hostels, to pay for higher standards, for the comfort, warmth, and cleanliness expected by a fast changing world.

Changes ran through not just hostels, but the ways hostels were run.

Men and women who had given years of their lives to running YHA and its committees, handed the running of the organisation to professional, paid staff.

Staff faced difficult years of redundancies, retraining and new ways of working, sometimes including the loss of their homes, as hostels for an older generation of staff were also their homes.

The way YHA ran itself, as an association, also changed. It abandoned the layers of committees and pulled itself into a single organisation accountable to a single board of trustees.

It abandoned an old devolved structure of local and regional groups and, with them, the particular strand of democracy that had made associations such a power for change, both personal and corporate.

Last weekend in London was a culmination to that journey.

796 members took a step, open to any YHA member over 16, and registered to be company members. It’s a complex issue about legality and company rules, but a simple step any member can and should take.

This year 6,532 votes were cast to elect three new trustees where last year only 78 votes were cast . And YHA for the first time has a woman as its chair; nearly 90 years too late you could say.

YHA Street, one of the many in which YHA has invested.

Changes to YHA have been a success. The position of YHA is financially good.

YHA has spent £100 million on its hostels in recent years and that high level of spending on hostels has continued with a further £8.8 million spent last year.

YHA can now show what it is doing to improve the health and well-being of its nearly one million guests and the more than 400,000 young people under 26 years of age who stay in its hostels. 63% of those who stayed with YHA reported that they were more physically active than when they stayed at home.

More will need to be done. YHA will launch a new strategy next year, in its 90th anniversary.

Some of the changes YHA made to its governance were intended to bring a newer, younger group into running its affairs. It sought to attract younger people to swell the increasingly weather beaten crowd who attend its annual meetings.

On the evidence of the weekend’s meeting in London that is happening.

I left the meeting, satisfied, even a little smug after a day in the air conditioned comfort of a hall as I emerged into a sweltering London afternoon. I had enjoyed an entertaining day.

I had listened to inspiring stories, met old friends and made new ones. Sure there’s a lot more for YHA to do, but that is in the nature of organisations, and of travel and adventure.

The meeting showed YHA capable of inspiring a new generation.

Mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington and wild sleeper Phoebe Smith told their stories of how YHA has inspired them. They were lively enthusiastic ambassadors for YHA.

James Blake YHA’s chief executive shared the story of YHA’s year with the audience and its director of strategy and engagement, Anita Kerwin-Nye, had everyone waving red and green cards in the air.

And YHA has its first female chair, almost 90 years too late you could say, but congratulations to Margaret Hart on making history.

If more people hear what a fantastic event YHA has made of its annual meeting, YHA might need to sell tickets to limit attendance in the future.

You can find out more about the amazing journey YHA has been on over nearly 90 years in Open to All, how youth hostels changed the world.

You can find out more about Phoebe Smith and her adventures here.

All photos courtesy YHA Archive except Street, author image.

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