England & Wales Culture, sport and tourism, Health and social care

The Parkrun furore and the battle for parks

Stoke Gifford Parish Council courted controversy recently with its decision to charge Parkrun participants a fee to cover the costs of repairing pathways. Jennifer Glover sees more difficult decisions ahead for councils when considering how to keep their parks and open spaces viable in the future.

Parkrun provides free 5km running events in parks around the country, with the aim of getting people active without a cost barrier. In some cases councils even contribute to the cost of organising their local run, seeing the public health benefits of having accessible sporting events. Critics say the decision is short-sighted and believe that these are the sorts of events councils should be encouraging rather than penalising.

It’s probably fair to say Stoke Gifford’s council did not take this decision lightly – it appears to be more a sign of desperate times than anything else. Whatever your views on the council’s decision, it’s important to recognise the wider context of mounting financial pressure to slash non-statutory services, which parks unfortunately are. It isn’t the only council to take unpopular decisions relating to parks in an effort to cut costs and bring in additional revenue.

Nesta’s recent report, Rethinking Parks, highlighted the need to explore innovative financial models to keep parks up and running in the current climate. It supported several pilots to test out new ways of saving and raising money for parks, including setting up a business co-working space, and redesigning the landscape to reduce ongoing maintenance costs. Separately, many local authorities are starting to charge for ‘bootcamp’ exercise classes run in their parks, and the Royal Parks are under increasing pressure to monetise London’s parks since DCMS handed over management to a charitable foundation in February.

This situation does raise some thought-provoking issues. There is mounting evidence that access to green space contributes to reduced income-related health inequalities and better physical and mental health outcomes. With upper tier local authorities now responsible for Public Health, it’s crucial that parishes, districts and other organisations involved with park management are also kept in the loop with Public Health goals so that they don’t end up working at cross-purposes.

Equally, there is increased pressure for councils to sell off property and land to fund their core services, as funding from central government is reduced year-on-year. New rules allow local authorities to retain capital receipts from asset sales for a limited period of three years from April 2016 – and parks may become a casualty of this move.

Stoke Gifford’s predicament also raises more fundamental questions – should parks be offered the same statutory protection as services like libraries? Under what circumstances should we charge people to use parks, over and above council tax? Should parks be the responsibility of local authorities or be handed to other bodies like community trusts? Should we be justifying parks in terms of measurable benefits, or should they be valued in their own right?

It is worth considering such questions, because the answers will become ever more relevant, as councils look for ways to work with communities to do more for less. They need to be considered in a local context because priorities change from place to place. Parks, as with other community services like libraries, are an extremely emotive subject and cutbacks are often greeted with strong opposition locally.

We’d love to hear your experiences of navigating these difficult decisions, and your opinions about how we can protect our parks for the future.

Jennifer Glover is a policy researcher at LGiU and leads on our wellbeing and fun policy work.