Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
Although it was originally the intention to charge the runners £1 each, Little Stoke Parish Council, near Bristol, took the decision to charge Parkrun when organising the weekly run for 300 local adults and children, claiming that damage caused by the runs will add £60,000 to maintenance costs.
It could be argued, perhaps, that organised running is on a parallel with organised sport, but football and cricket, bowls and croquet, for example, require specific pitches which are exclusive to those activities. Clubs expect to contribute towards maintenance, however unwillingly. Is it right that, when joggers choose to jog as a group, instead of using the same tracks on their own, they also pay? Inevitably, if Parkrun incur a fee, they will have to recover it from their runners. Cyclists potentially use the same tracks – are they also on the agenda?
What the Council seems to have forgotten is that local people will already be paying for using / maintaining the park through local taxes, and any repairs should be factored into the annual charge when the budget is reviewed.
Is the next step to charge dog walkers an admission fee, or families to use the play areas? Or perhaps for sitting on a bench to read the Sunday papers, or have a picnic with family and friends?
Not everyone has a garden, and those on new developments are pretty small to maximise density. More people than ever live in compact homes in high rise blocks, so our parks and public open spaces are a major leisure resource for people of all ages, whatever their ability and disability.
Across the country, volunteers help to sustain them: doing hard physical work as well as running cafes and organising events – whether live music or theatre, an apple festival, film night, flower sale, children’s parties or dog show, bird watching, yoga sessions or a celebration of local art. These events all raise money, making a valuable contribution to costs as well as community cohesion.
So Little Stoke could broaden its volunteer base, but also look for help from offender work programmes rather than penalise those who not only want to get fit, but encourage youngsters to do the same – vital when we’re told that obesity is on the rise. It’s a false economy, especially when Parkrun is increasingly the basis for sponsored charity fun runs!
Engaging with local businesses can raise funds through sponsoring events, tree planting, and specific improvements if approached with a clear business plan setting out the benefits, whilst local councillors, of course, have their ‘locality budgets’ just waiting for requests.
As the weather improves, parks are packed in early evenings and at weekends, and during school holidays; they are a cheap option for an enjoyable day out. People also walk/cycle through their parks on the way to and from work; it is a way to relax from the daily pressures and give yourself ‘me’ time.
When loneliness is a growing problem amongst all age groups, parks provide a valuable opportunity to engage with others, meeting new people, doing new things. Wine/beer tastings and dating sessions, as well as holiday fairs, would be exciting additions to the range of potential activities – justifying a charge to commercial organisers.
However, none of these activities should permit releasing balloons into the atmosphere from parks and open spaces because of the enormous damage they do to our environment and wildlife; just check out the ballonblow.org website to see the awful truth, from blackbirds strangled by the ribbons, to marine and farm animals gorging themselves on what they mistake for food. Balloons are litter and should be subjected to the same regulations which are applied to other waste if they are not handled and disposed of responsibly.
In the meantime, there is a petition to prevent Little Stoke from implementing its decision, and I hope the Parish council listens. Otherwise this could be the top of a very slippery slope, with other councils adopting similar proposals, forgetting their responsibilities to ensure their residents have free access to the parks and open spaces for which they already pay through their council tax.