Viewpoint: Run together

Carol Grant finds lessons in the Parkrun story about the value of investing time and effort into collaborative relationships and the success that can be achieved when different partners focus on working well together.

My local park is full of squirrels. The bold ones hit on the humans to feed them, and the rest of them gather nuts. So far, I haven’t seen any of my furry friends wielding a sledgehammer. Unlike HM Government, which recently announced that it intends to legislate to prevent councils from charging parkrun, the national charity, to organise its free 5k runs in local parks.

The specific nut they are trying to crack relates to the outcry in 2016 when Stoke Gifford Parish Council threatened to charge its local parkrun, Little Stoke, for use of the park, a move that ultimately ended that local event.

I am an enthusiastic parkrunner (number A18209). Sometimes I’m one of 100,000 people who regularly turn out at 9am on a Saturday to run 5k. Sometimes I’m one of the volunteer army that makes these free events happen. But I can’t see why legislation is needed to deal with a situation caused by one parish council and never since repeated.

The plan to legislate is news to local authorities. It was also news to parkrun UK, which only heard about it when the announcement was made. It immediately issued a statement saying that :

“whilst we hugely appreciate the government’s effort to support our free-to-participate model, and we feel truly honoured to be recognised in this way… this is not something that we lobbied for or had any involvement with creating… [and] although the closure of Little Stoke parkrun in 2016 demonstrated a clear breakdown of our relationship with Stoke Gifford Parish Council, situations like that are extremely rare and across the UK we’re proud of our many hundreds of productive relationships with a wide range of landowners.”

In other words, don’t jeopardise our good relationships with local authorities and other partners by making laws that aren’t needed.

What’s even more surprising is that the House of Commons DCLG Committee published a comprehensive report on public parks in March this year, yet this report isn’t even referenced in the latest consultation document, Running Free.

More than half of the UK population uses parks on a regular basis. The House of Commons Committee’s starting point was that parks are self-evidently “treasured assets”. The Committee, chaired by Clive Betts (Labour MP for Sheffield South East), conducted a public survey as part of its deliberations and asked people to use a free text box to describe what they used their park for: parkrun was by far the most common response.

Parkrun’s own response to the DCLG committee’s consultation made the point that the discussion about how parks are funded should sit within a much wider framework of how we are going to tackle inactivity. It also said that changes to the management of parks could offer benefits such as new opportunities for partnership, a greater sense of local ownership and increased community cohesion.

The Committee considered but did not ultimately recommend that provision and maintenance of parks should be a statutory duty. Neither did it recommend legislating to keep parkrun free. Its main focus was that the Minister should publish guidance to local authorities that they should work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards to prepare and publish joint parks and green space strategies.

In other words, there’s a bigger picture which involves a collaborative approach to tackle inactivity. For parkrun, this is wider than just the UK. Its mission used to be “a parkrun in every community that wants one”. As it hit its 12th year in 2016 it widened this to “a healthier and happier planet”. In South Africa for example, over half a million people are now registered for parkrun, including in several townships.

So big ambitions for a voluntary organisation that has had a transformational effect and wants to work in partnership. Meanwhile a myopic approach from a government that has yet to raise its gaze from the gates of Little Stoke park.

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