The recent decision by Stoke Gifford Parish Council to charge parkrun for use of Little Stoke park has attracted considerable coverage and discussion in the UK and across the world. I must declare a bias here: as Head of Participation for parkrun (albeit currently on maternity leave), having set up the junior parkrun series and as a nearby (Bristol) resident I have been closely involved in this issue since its inception.
As background, the Parish Council kindly gave permission for a parkrun to be organised at Little Stoke park; land they lease from South Gloucestershire Council. The 5k parkrun started in November 2012, and attracts 250-300 parkrunners every Saturday. In 2014, Little Stoke junior parkrun joined the family; a 2k for 4-14 year olds which takes place at 9am on a Sunday. As with all parkruns they are organised by local, unpaid volunteer teams.
In 2015 the Parish Council contacted parkrun stating their intention to charge every Little Stoke parkrunner £1 per week. They since changed their stance and on 12th April voted to charge parkrun UK, rather than individuals, for use of the park. It is unclear why this charge is being imposed. The Council’s reasons have varied; from covering the cost of maintenance to repair damage they allege is caused by parkrunners, to the fact that parkrun is an “organisation” and that all organisations must pay for park use. Note that the Council have never quantified the cost they believe is attributable to parkrun or the precept that is necessary to cover it. Their initial proposal to charge parkrunners would have netted more than £10k per year. Beyond that they have never explained what would constitute “a small monetary amount towards the upkeep” of the park.
The decision to charge parkrunners and/or charge parkrunUK is an unprecedented move, which challenges the very principles and ethos on which parkrun has been founded. So why the outcry, and why is parkrun resisting the imposition of this charge?
We are all aware of the dire statistics regarding inactivity, obesity and the associated social and economic impacts on individuals, families, communities and society at large. Inactivity arises, in part, due to barriers to participation which prevent people from undertaking enough activity to benefit their health. These barriers can be psychological, cultural, practical or financial. They MUST be broken down.
parkrun seeks to remove as many barriers to participation as possible. For example, the events are free to take part in, they are friendly, welcoming, non intimidating, community focused and take place in accessible local areas of open space. In removing barriers people of all backgrounds, ages, abilities, sizes, ethnicities and so forth participate. The events are not (as some have incorrectly assumed, the preserve of the white, middle classes) they are truly open to all. It is my job as Head of Participation to ensure that that is, and remains, the case.
In addition to barriers to participation, the organisation also seeks to remove obstacles to delivery of physical activity. The events are simple and easy to organise. They have to be. That’s what makes the model so successful and replicable. parkrun’s policy that it, and its local volunteer teams, will not pay for use of the parks or spend considerable amounts of time applying for grants removes a substantial time and cost barrier to the delivery of an event. Imagine what resources would be required locally and nationally if each of the 485 parkrun events across the UK had to apply separately for grants to access the open space? It would be unsustainable and ultimately crippling: crippling for parkrun as an organisation and therefore ultimately crippling for the 1.1 million registered participants and the 85,000 weekly runners across the country.
But what of the Council’s assertion that parkrun is an “organisation” and should therefore pay? Yes, parkrun is an organised group but operates on a different basis from other formal park events, such as music concerts, sports clubs and other structured activities. We do not charge for participation or membership, and we do not seek or receive a service from the Council or exclusive use of any part of the park. parkrun simply requests permission for shared use for a short period on Saturday and Sunday mornings. On the subject of Sunday mornings, Little Stoke juniors – with its 85 or so weekly, 4-14 year old participants – is part of the parkrun family, however the Council have said that any charge would not apply to the junior event: part the same organisation, with the same ethos, yet a different stance.
Of course, I appreciate that the Parish Council may well be under financial pressure and want to keep taxes as low as possible. However, their parochial attempts to alleviate this with, short-term hard-cash injection, fails to appreciate the longer-term benefit of parkrun. It seems they are yet to be convinced of the true value of having an event on their land, which includes the substantial cost savings for local and national government, and the UK tax payer. Those cost savings come from improved mental and physical health, enhanced community cohesion, reduced crime, improvements in educational attainment, substantial upskilling through volunteering, pride in a neighbourhood and its facilities, the economic benefit of having people spend time and money at local community venues such as cafes, shops and leisure centres…the list goes on. It is substantiated with evidence that I wont begin to cite here, however just to take the example of volunteering. On a conservative estimate, the delivery of Little Stoke parkrun and junior parkrun has involved over 2000 hours of volunteer effort in the last year, which, applying South Gloucestershire Council’s formula, should be valued at over £27,800.
Volunteer hours are quantifiable. Other benefits, as illustrated in the photos below, are intangible, yet life changing.
The argument, as voiced by the Council, that parkrun monopolises the park is simply incorrect. parkrun’s guidelines specifically state that all parkrunners should respect other park users and the environment. To ensure that the events are as inclusive and easy to organise as possible we do not impose maximum participant numbers or have entry requirements – anyone can take part. However numbers are monitored carefully and an event would be cancelled if large numbers made it unsafe. As numbers grow at an event, new parkruns are started elsewhere which relieve the pressure: this has been the story in South Gloucestershire and Bristol where there are now seven parkrun events with more in the pipeline. Little Stoke parkrun volunteers actively marshal the car park and reserve approximately one-third of the spaces for other users. Complaints are addressed immediately and an incident reporting system is in place to ensure our response is appropriate and proportionate. Futhermore, the volunteer team have been working with a small group of Councilors to develop a formal ‘Good Neighbour Policy’ that builds on the commitment to community responsibility and sets out a framework for partnership between parkrun and the Council. They have also offered to undertake litter picks and other activities to help protect the park environment.
The Parish Council have the right to grant or withdraw permission for parkrun at Little Stoke Park, and ultimately the organisation will abide by this decision. Unfortunately, if the decision of 12th April stands and the council do not capitulate, Little Stoke parkrun will have to close. It’s as simple – and as sad – as that.
This is a lose-lose situation for everyone – for the runners, the volunteer team, the local shop owners and cafes and the whole community. Moreover, the Parish Council will be left with their coffers the same size as they were before, and with reputational damage that may never be repaired.
At a time when we desperately need to reverse the tide of inactivity and open our parks and open spaces up for public use this decision is a hard pill to swallow and could set a precedent that is unacceptably damaging both locally, but also nationally and globally. The fight for free physical activity will, and must, go on.
I want to finish off by sincerely thanking everyone for the overwhelming support they have given parkrun, and specifically the local volunteer team who have worked tirelessly to protect their precious event for everyone.
In closing: Little Stoke parkrun is owned by the community, for the community. It is they that want it to take place, and are supported by parkrun HQ to make this happen. I, for one, will do all I can to ensure that the community can retain the ability to run for free in their local park, and to protect the principles on which parkrun is founded for the benefit of all.