Pay per swing? Pay per stick returned by your dog? Pay per jog? Is England’s green and pleasant land about to turn into a pay-as-you go chain of parkland?
Maybe, if more councils look to follow the lead of Stoke Gifford Parish Council, who this week hit the headlines for taking the extraordinary step of voting to charge people to run in their local park.
It’s not that simple of course. The runners are part of a local club - Parkrun - and they are pounding the paths every Saturday morning, which the council says is eroding the environment faster than they can afford to maintain it.
But the decision to charge local people to use their village park seems woefully short sighted. Not only has the council forgotten its wider duties to promote health and wellbeing amongst local people, and to celebrate volunteers giving their time to help one another. But it’s also committed commercial suicide - runners, dog walkers, parents with small children – these are the core users any park manager wants to encourage to come in, not keep out.
Desperate times call for desperate measures cry Stoke Gifford Parish Council.
These are dark times indeed for our beloved green spaces and those charged with their care. But riling against your core users, charging them for helping get local people healthy and active, and raising the profile of your local park along the way (let alone increase the footfall at your café afterwards) seems like the wrong way to go. Parkrun, a group of volunteers encouraging one another to get fit and active, should be cheered not charged.
Here at Nesta we’ve spent the last two years working closely with 10 local authorities to re-think how they pay for and improve their parks in the lean years ahead though our Rethinking Parks programme. While a small number have created great new facilities and are charging for access to them - like pop up workspaces in Hoxton Square, for example – the majority are trying to balance the books by drawing their core users closer, not pushing them away.
Like Burnley Council who are getting volunteers involved in planting to beautiful meadows rather than more grass. They estimate they’ll save £100,000 by 2018. And Darlington Council has been working with the group Groundwork to help staff from local businesses get out of the office once a month to improvement pathways or paint fences.
From parks to hospitals, adult social care services to job centres we’ve been arguing that utilising the energy and talents of local people alongside paid professionals is the future of public services. In fact, people power in England is already contributing £34 billion to the economy, a contribution Stoke Parish Council would be foolish to not make the most of.
The Parish Council look like they’ve jumped the gun on this one. Instead of making the most of the people power on their doorstep, working collaboratively with one of their most active local groups, they’ve defaulted to charging them on a pay as you run basis.
If they stick with that short sighted decision it’ll be a crying shame for the thousands of local Parkrun runners – their waistlines and their wellbeing – and for the social action movement we should all be cheering.
Image credit: Drew McLellan via Flickr, CC 2.0 license