A sunny outlook for club huts?

Posted by Mike Battye on 16/01/2018
The 16 bed Little Langdale Hut, Fylde MC
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The BMC Huts Group recently completed a survey of mountain huts run by affiliated clubs, with the aim of collecting up-to-date information which may be of use to hut managers and management committees. The results are discussed in more detail in the report below, but the overall conclusions are that many huts are on a sound financial footing and that plenty of huts have improvements either recently completed or scheduled for the near future.

The huts we surveyed range in size from 10 to 55 beds, but the majority are in the 10-20 range. Most huts were converted in the period 1958-1985, although many have since undergone substantial updating. In view of the age of the properties and often very remote locations, upkeep and maintenance are a challenge, but one to which most clubs seem to be responding well. 65% were in properties built before 1900 (some so old that their origins are lost in the mist of time!). The majority are freehold, and therefore represent a significant asset to the club. Happily, most leasehold huts report having relatively long tenures, but a few clubs reported concerns, with negotiations with landlords still to be concluded.

Access and accomodation

Digital key codes are gradually replacing traditional methods of entry such as a posted key. This is important as many huts allow non-members, including organised groups (e.g. schools) and are actively seeking the significant source of income that such lettings can provide. Clubs are generally able to balance external bookings with demand from members, for example by reserving spaces (bunks or rooms) for members or blocking out periods of time only for members’ use. Most huts beyond a certain size have more than one bookable room but few have family rooms.  Where provided the latter have proved extremely popular.
 
We checked the websites for each hut and found that, with some few exceptions, these were relatively informative and offered appropriate guidance for booking the hut (even if this was only a booking email address). However only 25% of huts had some form of online booking, and often this was just an availability calendar. No huts in the survey sample had a fully automated booking system linked to the website (e.g. as used by the Don Whillans Hut).

Occupancy

The average price for beds for members is very low – under £5. Understandably non-members (allowed in over 80% of huts) are charged more (on average £9), but by the standards of comparable privately provided accommodation in National Parks, this is still very cheap.
 
At first sight occupancy (i.e., no. of bed nights/total beds x 365) seem to be quite low, with only two huts achieving over 20%. However, these are probably realistic. Even quite extensively promoted huts such as the BMC National Huts rarely exceed 30% - the prospect of a wet week in February at the Roaches is never going to pull in the crowds! However, most clubs were clearly covering their costs, and in some cases repaying loans for improvements, so it could be argued that occupancy levels are not a major concern.
 
We calculated the average running cost over the year per occupant (energy plus services divided by total number of bed nights) and in only one case was this greater than the member price per night. In most instances there was some margin left to provide for repairs, maintenance, rent and repayment of loans.

Running costs

Understandably services costs (rates, water & waste, insurance etc.) are related to the size of the property – ranging from £500 for a small hut to over £3000/year for the largest. The average in 2015 was £1,204/year. In terms of running costs, the biggest hit by far is fuel, on average over £1000 per year. Unfortunately, most must rely on electricity as their primary heating source. Old properties are hard to heat so energy costs are likely to remain an important factor in the viability of huts. Only slightly over half the huts reported having both double glazing and roof insulation. There is clearly much scope to look at alternatives, with just three of the huts in the sample using wind and/or solar. We expected to find a correlation between heating costs and hut size, but there are also some quite wide variations as factors such as type of heating source, hut location and aspect, and level of insulation are clearly important. 
 
Following a suggestion by colleagues at the National Trust, who have considerable experience of managing similar properties, we calculated a basic energy performance score for each hut: fuel costs as a ratio of hut size, measured by number of beds. The average of this energy index in 2015 was 71.9. Interestingly, the most four most ‘efficient’ huts on this measure (scoring 13.9 to 24.0) only used a wood fire or log burner as their primary heating source, suggesting that members tolerance for cold may be the significant factor here! The most expensive hut from an energy point of view (which from personal experience is both large and comfortable) had an index score of 187. Huts like this at the higher end of the index tend to use storage radiators, possibly no longer as cost effective a solution as they once were.

Repair and refurbishment

Encouragingly, about a third of the huts reported having carried out, or being in the process of doing, significant refurbishments.  Work planned or recently undertaken includes re-roofing; kitchen, washroom and bedroom updating; regular interior redecoration; and electrical work. At least 10 huts were doing major work to improve insulation (double glazing, cladding, internal roof insulation etc.). While one club in the sample had received substantial grant funding, the rest are managing to finance improvements themselves. This is sometimes from club reserves but also from loans, either from members (usually interest free) or even from bank loans/mortgages – almost certainly itself a vote of confidence in the hut’s viability.

Next Steps

A full discussion of the hut survey is planned at the BMC AGM in April. In the meantime, we are using the survey results to help guide BMC policy on how best to support clubs in managing and improving their huts. We also hope to be able to identify and spread good practice. We obtained some follow up data for the year 2017, but it would be helpful to get a much fuller picture for 2017. So, if you are a club officer please help by responding to our next questionnaire which we should be circulating in Spring 2018.
 
Mike Battye
BMC Huts Group & DWMH Warden
 
Thanks to Iain McCallun (Chair of Huts Group), Dan Middleton (BMC) and Phil Moore (Chester MC) for help with running the survey, and all the club officers who took the time to respond.
 
For advice and support on hut related matters, contact huts@thebmc.co.uk

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