Stoke Gifford Parish Council, which hit the national headlines last year when it withdrew permission for a not-for-profit group to use Little Stoke Park for a free weekly running event, has been singled out for criticism by the government in a recently published consultation document titled ‘Running Free’.
The parish council caused outrage in April 2016 when it voted to insist on a financial contribution from the local volunteer group which had staged a weekly 5km ‘parkrun’ in Little Stoke Park since November 2012, claiming that, as an organised group, it should contribute financially towards the maintenance of the park.
Parkrun is a free-to-enter timed 5km run that takes place at 445 locations across the UK at 9am every Saturday. The events are delivered entirely by local volunteers, with support from parkrun UK, a national not-for-profit organisation funded by sponsorship, grants and donations.
Local representatives said parkrun’s founding principles ruled out any compulsory charge being made on participants and forbade them from handling money, the latter effectively ruling out the raising of funds through any other means (such as asking for voluntary donations or applying for a grant).
There is also a 2km junior version of parkrun, for children aged between 4 and 14, the local stage of which continues to take place in Little Stoke Park on Sunday mornings as it was exempted from the parish council’s ruling.
In the consultation paper published on 12th April, the government says the decision by Stoke Gifford Parish Council to impose a charge on parkrun for the use of Little Stoke Park is “entirely contrary to the objectives of this government both for health and for voluntary community action”.
The paper’s introductory section adds: “The government considers it important that action be taken to prevent other local authorities following Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s example.”
Justifying the proposal to legislate, the paper continues: “Local authorities quite legitimately charge for a variety of different events and specific activities that take place in local parks. The government considers that it is appropriate for the public to pay a reasonable sum for the exclusive use of a facility such as a tennis court or for the shared use of a facility such as a golf course. It is also considered appropriate for charges to be made for special events such as outdoor concerts or other ticketed events that generate a profit for the local authority or the event organiser.”
“However, the government does not consider it appropriate for a local authority to charge a volunteer community seeking to provide a free weekly event for the use of a public park, overturning our long standing convention of free access to parks for their everyday use.”
Emphasising the distinction between shared and exclusive use, the paper adds: “Parkrun and junior parkrun share the park with other park users. Although a course may be marked out and may be the same course every week, and volunteer marshals line the route, there is no exclusive use of the park. Parkrunners share the park with other members of the public during the parkrun. This is quite different to the use of a facility in a park that is subject to exclusive use such as a tennis court, or even a facility such as a football pitch that is exclusively used by groups of players at certain times of the week.”
Beyond its specific references to parkrun, the consultation also asks for views on local authorities charging professional dog walkers, personal trainers and other individuals and organisations that use public parks in relation to business, “particularly where that activity does not involve exclusive use of a public park or part of a public park”.
The government’s proposal also constitutes a slap in the face to local MP Jack Lopresti who sided with the parish council during the dispute with parkrun and organised a Westminster Hall debate [video; transcript] in which he claimed that the threat of legislation to prevent them charging for organised sporting events in its park “flies completely in the face of localism and the devolution agenda”.
Tom Williams, parkrun’s chief operating officer, said the organisation had not lobbied the government to introduce legislation and expressed surprise that parkrun events are referenced so strongly in the consultation document.
He added: “This consultation represents a wonderful opportunity for local communities to come forward with ideas around how local authorities can best engage with organisations such as ours in order to support their parks.”
Asked if he would like to comment on the publication of the consultation document, Cllr Ernie Brown, chair of the parish council, said the council had recently formed a sub-group to review its Parks & Open Spaces Policy, which is “out of date and needs updating”. Recommendations are expected to be brought to a meeting of Full Council in September.
• The consultation closes on 5th July. Details can be found at http://bit.ly/running-free-2017
Photo: A BBC reporter interviews a runner in Little Stoke Park on 16th April 2016.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of the Bradley Stoke Journal news magazine (on pages 4 & 5). The magazine is delivered FREE, EVERY MONTH, to 9,500 homes in Bradley Stoke, Little Stoke and Stoke Lodge. Phone 01454 300 400 to enquire about advertising or leaflet insertion.