Youth hostelling’s precarious future

Young backpackers, looking for somewhere warm and dry to recuperate, have long been able to count on the Youth Hostel Association. Now it is selling properties—so how much longer will this national institution survive?

September 12, 2023
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Image: Alamy / Composite by Prospect

Is there any map symbol more reassuring to a wet and weary walker than a red triangle? Anyone who is familiar with Ordnance Survey maps knows that this is the symbol for a youth hostel, traditionally inexpensive and spartan accommodation predominantly for young walkers and cyclists. Once there were around 300 YHA hostels in England and Wales; today that number has halved and soon it may plummet further.

In March 2020, as the Youth Hostel Association, England and Wales (YHA) was preparing to celebrate its 90th anniversary, the Covid pandemic struck and it was forced to close its entire network for the first time in its history. Three-plus years on, and YHA has announced a three-year transition plan involving the disposal of a “significant number” of the 115 or so hostels that it still directly operates (as opposed to the independently owned hostels operating under the YHA umbrella). It has been reported that the total number of hostel disposals may be up to 50 (presumably in addition to the six large hostels sold or currently for sale as part of the charity’s post-Covid rationalisation of its city properties), which would leave the charity with only circa 65 owned hostels.  

YHA’s initial announcement of its three-year plan was made in late June 2023, to the small proportion of its 130,000 members who had chosen to become “company members”. The chief executive’s briefing and subsequent media coverage referred to Covid and the cost-of-living crisis. No mention was made of the £50m plus of net borrowings (against a property and equipment value of circa £85m) stated in YHA’s 2021–22 annual report, but members were told that HSBC, YHA’s bank, had “positively reviewed” the plans.

More recently, all YHA members received a notification which referred to “…some network changes that will see us strive to increase the number of people—especially young people—who benefit from YHA.” “Network changes” is surely something of an understatement, and it remains an open question whether YHA can significantly reduce the size of its network while simultaneously increasing its charitable impact. YHA’s communication plan evidently seeks to underplay proposals which will fundamentally alter the charity’s character forever—proposals made without any prior consultation with its members or stakeholders.

Marketing of the latest tranche of 20 hostels commenced simultaneously with the initial announcement. Included in this are YHA Streatley, located at the junction of the Ridgeway and Thames long-distance paths, which was donated to YHA in 1935; and YHA Patterdale, built on a site donated by TA Leonard, one of YHA’s founding fathers who also helped to establish the Ramblers and the Holiday Fellowship, the latter of which aimed to bring “holidays within reach of poorer folk”.

Others include YHA Haworth, an 89-bed Victorian Gothic mansion in Yorkshire’s Brontë country; YHA Eyam, a Victorian folly in Hope Valley, Derbyshire; YHA Kington, a former hospital on Offa’s Dyke long-distance path in Herefordshire; and YHA Clun Mill in the Shropshire Hills area of outstanding natural beauty.

Together, these properties formed part of a unique and irreplaceable portfolio, one predominantly created in the 1930s through the generosity of benefactors and the enterprising spirit of young volunteers. At its peak in the early fifties the network comprised just over 300 hostels—and numbers remained near that level for much of the last century. The disposal of YHA hostels in any numbers began after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, and has continued apace since. Some of these properties (for example former YHA Keld, located at the junction of the Pennine Way and Alfred Wainwright’s Coast-to-Coast path) were in key locations, forming part of a chain of hostels carefully designed to accommodate walkers on long-distance routes. The destruction of the network had begun; each announcement of closure brought with it criticisms and accusations that YHA was “selling off the family silver”. Yet the announcements kept coming…

Some of the properties sold have become independent hostels (many operating as YHA franchises), and YHA hopes that the independent sector will take on those it is now shedding. This is a big ask, not least because YHA is required to sell for “best value”, which for many of these properties will sadly translate to alternative uses—residential, hotel or redevelopment. Additionally, while independent operators bring significant entrepreneurial skills and energy, they probably do not have the financial benefits associated with YHA’s charitable status, nor do they enjoy the same economies of scale, income from membership subscriptions, or such an eager pool of volunteer labour.

Up until professional management was introduced in the 1980s, YHA was almost entirely run by volunteers through a regional network. Those using hostels had to be YHA members, and many were also members of local hostelling groups which would organise regular outings to whichever digs happened to be nearby. Accommodation was predominantly in dormitories, with fewer of the private rooms that are available today, and chores were allocated to guests to reduce costs.

Such an ethos and fellowship among members fostered a unique spirit and community. YHA became an invaluable option for people, particularly young people, seeking to explore the countryside while enjoying the camaraderie of common areas and the banter of fellow walkers or cyclists.

YHA remains a membership charity but today the membership is given little opportunity to influence the direction of the organisation. The membership elects the trustees, but only applicants approved by an effectively board-controlled sub-committee are put forward for election; many members view this as potentially restricting opportunities to promote new ideas, preserve YHA values and challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.

People still love hostelling and, at its best, YHA has managed to successfully improve its hostels to meet modern requirements while retaining the charm that makes its network unique. So why has it come to this? Maybe YHA has a confused brand and has failed to promote the concept of hostelling to the young people (aged under 26) who are the focus of its charitable object (less than 5 per cent of YHA’s members are under 26, though the YHA says that many more young people visit with families and on school trips). It may have been insufficiently innovative in seeking to attract active, time rich and cash poor older people to book beds during off-peak periods, or perhaps it was mistaken in withdrawing support from the YHA-affiliated groups who historically generated a lot of demand. Maybe YHA has also been living beyond its means for some time. Pre-Covid, its annual non-hostel costs were in excess of £10m (plus costs on loan repayment and interest on previous investment of well over £1m). Its annual trading surplus averaged only around £1m, even when operating in an environment of historically low interest rates.

The time has surely come for YHA to focus on the charity it was rather than the unspecified alternative charity it might never become. YHA should be using its undoubted political nous to salvage what’s left of its network and use this as base from which to grow again. The alternative is a collection of 65 or so facilities used mainly by schools as field study centres: worthwhile, but hardly demonstrating the ambition and realising the vision of YHA’s founding fathers.

The government’s response to the “Landscapes review” into national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, chaired by Julian Glover, identified the disparities in different groups’ access to nature, as well as the countryside’s importance to wellbeing and the role it can play in reducing health inequalities. The government claims to be committed to making protected landscapes accessible to all and wants a “network of beautiful, nature-rich spaces that all parts of society can easily access and enjoy.” Fundamental to this is surely a comprehensive network of inexpensive accommodation run by a competent charity focused on young people.

If YHA is not willing or able to take on the task, then government should step in—before this beloved charity and national treasure is lost forever.