Should parkrun users pay for parks?

Post by Dr Ian Mell, Department of Geography and Planning

The Parkrun phenomena has promoted running to a whole range of keen, and less so, runners around the UK and the world. However, this week a local council in the south-west of England has proposed that a Parkrun in Little Stoke start to pay fees to cover the costs of maintenance of the park it uses. This has led to a range of response most questioning why a local council would tax a well-managed and much loved form of free public exercise. Whilst on the face of it there is a very pervasive argument for promoting health and well-being through organised activities supported by the NHS and Clinical Commission Groups CCG) there is a second argument which asks whether all organised sports/events in public spaces should be subject to fees.

It would be unwise to compare team sports, such as football, played on public parks, the rise in popularity of ‘boot camps’ and Parkruns. However, they are all organised activities which require parks to be somewhat segregated to function. Football teams pay fees to cover some, but not all, maintenance of football pitches whilst for-profit private boot camps businesses do not. This raises a dilemma for Parkrun enthusiasts. Parkrun is a charity which does not charge a participation fee and is therefore not for profit. Any sponsorship they do receive covers the running/administrative costs of the events. Parkrun is at its very core different to boot camps and organised sport, yet is still organised and makes use of public spaces for a formal event.

One of the reason why the local council in Little Stoke are proposing charging Parkrun to use the park is the cumulative wear and tear of approximately 300 grouped runners using the site every Saturday. The Parkrun organisers have offered in-kind litter picking or maintenance work to cover any damage (perceived or real) that the events create, on which the local council and the organisers have not yet reached an agreement. However, with increased and concentrated use there are very real possibilities that the quality of a given site could be compromised even where organisers and users are careful to respect the integrity of the site.

A lot of the reaction to the proposed charges have been ones of incredulity asking why a free event would be charged, asking why council tax doesn’t cover all this, and asking why an event that has, in some places, engaged people who may not participate in physical activity regularly would start charging entrance fees? All of these are good questions but in many ways simplify the argument.

First, the lack of an entrance fee has been one of the foundations of the success of Parkrun. However, would a charge of £1 put people off entering? The costs of other organised races/events could be considered exhortative – the Liverpool 10K is over £20 – so the smaller cost may be more manageable for many people.

Second, any activity that engages people in a healthier lifestyle is a positive. This can be in the form of organised exercise/sport, more exposure of community activities or simply spending time with other people. Again, we could ask whether Parkrun actually addresses these issues for people who often fall through the net of health care improvements. Furthermore, are the locations of Parkrun convenient for people? In Liverpool Croxteth Hall and Princes Park are home to Parkrun event, which may or may not engage people who can’t access other activity facilities.

Finally, the role of funding parks management is central to the Little Stoke case. Council tax is used to fund the development and maintenance of parks and open space. However, the proportion of council tax allocation to parks is minimal. Moreover, in many cities in the UK, including Liverpool, local government budgets have been slashed by central government and increases in council tax payments have been frozen. Therefore as the costs of maintenance of parks has increased the ability to raise funding to manage them has flat lined or decreased. For example Liverpool’s operational budget has decreased by approximately 58% in the last six year (2010-to date) meaning that the budgets for managing parks has also fallen. With the rise in park use through activities such as Parkrun there is likely to be greater need for maintenance due to wear and tear, yet the money needed to do the works is becoming increasingly limited.

All of these issues are wrapped up in the Parkrun debate. Promoting a healthier lifestyle through exercise or community engagement should be seen as a positive but there is a payoff regarding the longer-term management of spaces used for activities. Over time it may become necessary to raise charges for all ‘formal’ activities (even if they are free) in parks such as Parkrun to provide revenue to maintain the resource. However, as we have seen this week such decisions come loaded with emotive responses and thus require local councils to think carefully about whether the increased benefits of use and physical activity (of which there are many) can be balanced against the economic costs of maintenance.