Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past week, you’ll be aware of the news that Stoke Gifford Parish Council wants to levy a charge on parkrun. That’s right, the same parkrun which is free to take part in, volunteer run and managed by a not-for-profit organisation. The same parkrun that is credited with breaking down barriers to participation and challenging inactivity with over 23,000 previously inactive people participating in 2015 alone. The same parkrun that has 800 weekly events worldwide (approaching 500 in the UK alone), all of which are and always have been FREE. Stoke Gifford Parish Council is the first in the world to charge a fee for the use of a park, and that decision has resulted in an outcry.
I joined the parkrun family at the beginning of 2015 and blogged about my love for the weekly, inclusive event at the beginning of this year. I love everything about the ethos from the friendly faces to the personal challenge, the volunteers to the regulars. As far as I’m concerned, parkrun is an incredibly positive thing, and crucial to spreading a positive message about physical fitness through their ethos of being free, timed and open to everyone. Parkrun has been a revelation.
Since the news broke through the week, a petition to back Little Stoke parkrun has been signed by tens of thousands. Not only that, but everyone from parkrunners to Olympians to the Sports Minister have given their reaction. Indeed, many councils have issued statements to the effect that they have no plans to charge for parkruns in their area. Overwhelmingly, reactions have been dismay and outrage at the actions of the council (except, rather infamously, by Giles Coren who clearly doesn’t “get” the benefits of parkrun), so much so that this weekend’s Little stoke parkrun had to be cancelled amid safety fears after it was felt that too many may turn up to show their support. Unsurprisingly, some runners still turned up to run the route together, clearly not allowing this controversial ruling to stand in the way of their weekend fix of fitness, fun and friendship.
To me, the decision in Stoke Gifford is short-sighted. In a time when we are bombarded by news stories about obesity, inactivity and the cost to the NHS of leading a sedentary lifestyle, we should be doing everything we can to make sure there are no barriers to physical activity. If people want to go for a run around their local park on a Saturday morning, then they should be able to whether there are 2 of them or 200 of them. It’s not as if this is a regular mass gathering of super-fast, “eye of the tiger” racing snakes who barge rudely past other park users, many parkrunners are children, people with dogs, new runners who have spent weeks building up to their first 5k and want to experience the joy of running with others and feel like they belong to a community. Parkrunners come in all ages, shapes and sizes, with different goals, speeds and motivations. Everyone supports each other and respects others in the park. We are reminded before every run that we do not have exclusive use of the park and should therefore be courteous to other users who have just as much right to be there as we do. When I acted as a course marshal last week, I spoke to many other park users – walkers, cyclists and golfers – who were all friendly and supportive of the event, asking questions and commenting on the weather (terribly British, but it was great running weather!). Nobody had any complaints, indeed issues are very rare as far as I can tell, and I’ve noticed other park users taking the time to cheer on the runners and offer encouragement. Parkrun has become an integral part of the community.
Today, in the wake of this massive publicity, our event had many first-timers, far more than we would usually have, and this is probably true of parkruns around the country. As I waited at the finish for the runners to return (I was volunteering again), I was approached by a member of the public out walking his dog. He asked who was in charge, if we had to pay and if the council had given permission for the event, at first making me concerned that this would be a difficult conversation, but upon hearing that the council was very supportive of our event, he began to ask about Little Stoke and my feelings on events there. I told him truthfully that I found it short-sighted and he was quick to agree, pointing out how much a healthier population would save the health service. Where I had expected opposition, I got support.
What this encounter showed me is that there is a lot of support out there from the non-running community, which makes the SGPC argument that non-runners shouldn’t have to pay for the upkeep of the park seem even more ridiculous. Surely that upkeep is funded by council tax, which everyone pays? If we take that argument to its extreme, then it must be unfair for non-drivers to pay for road repairs, for those without children to pay for repairs to playparks or for those who own a torch to pay for street lighting. See how ridiculous it sounds when you put it like that? The lunacy in Stoke Gifford’s decision has been captured beautifully by satirical website News Thump with its suggestion of “coin-operated swings” and a “premium slide”.
It seems to me that parkrun simply makes inspired use of the available public facilities, and in many cases draws people to a town/city in order to take part: they pay to park in council car parks, perhaps go to a local cafe afterwards or make a day of it and go shopping. Is that not what every council wants?
Clearly, this debate is far from over, and I can only hope that common sense prevails. We must all fight to maintain the ethos of parkrun: an ethos of fitness, an ethos of inclusion and an ethos which is helping to bring together our increasingly fractured society. Running can do that.
You can read the official parkrun statement here
You can read a great response from Nell Darby in The Guardian here
You can read a fantastic piece by Sydnee Watlow in The Mirror here
You can check out the new #loveparkrun website here
You can sign the petition here