Running down a blind alley

How would you feel about getting up at 9am on a Saturday morning to run 5km around your local park? It might not immediately seem the most appealing of ideas. Yet in almost 400 locations across the UK (and more worldwide), thousands of people get up and take part in a free timed 5km run (not a race!), through parkrun. (Declaration of interest: the author is an occasional participant).

The great thing about parkrun is it caters for all levels from serious competitive athletes to beginners and those simply wanting to walk the distance. It promotes a sense of community which keeps people engaged even when finding physical activity difficult. And it encourages people to be physical active – more than 23,000 previously inactive people took part in 2015.

It also allows people to give something back, through volunteering to help keep the events running. (While there are paid staff in the head office, all events are free of charge and volunteer led.) So it shouldn’t be a surprise parkrun has been endorsed by Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, who said “parkrun delivers a space for people of all abilities, and all ages, to get our running shoes on and raise our heart rates with a supportive community that can help us to achieve our physical activity goals.”

parkrun is the kind of event most people want to and should encourage. Statistics on obesity and the British public’s lack of physical activity are well-known and regularly reported. Since 2012, local authorities have had a duty to promote public health and reduce physical activity. You would think this would mean support for parkruns and similar initiatives. But one council is now calling that support into question.

In what’s become a national story, Stoke Gifford Parish Council wants its local parkrun to contribute towards the cost of re-surfacing the path at Little Stoke Park, where up to 300 runners take part on a weekly basis. This could include charging runners £1 a time for their participation – and. last night, the council voted in favour of such charges.

Unsurprisingly, participants in parkrun and wider commentators have reacted with fury to the news. While a £1 charge might seem minimal, it’s contrary to a founding principle of parkrun in that there should be no barrier to participation.

This has attracted national attention, with even Sports Minister Tracey Crouch commenting on the Council’s decision. But it also raises questions for the future. Would any amount raised from charges make any form of substantive contribution to the cost of the Council’s repairs? Will it put people off? And might other councils consider copying this example.

The likelihood is other councils are unlikely to impose similar charges, particularly given the furious reaction to Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s decision. Most local authorities look set to continue embracing the positive impact parkrun has on their communities and in helping to improve physical activity levels. The reality is that Little Stoke parkrun is more likely to relocate than start charging, so don’t be surprised if this decision is reversed.