How can Stoke Gifford Parish Council deal with their Park Run crisis?

This year is undoubtedly one of great sporting events with the Olympic Games taking place in Rio later this summer and Euro2016 taking place at the end of the domestic football season.

While the focus will be on elite competition, these and the regular calendar of events will certainly inspire a new generation of people to take up sport and get healthy.

The news is, after all, full of stories about an increase in obesity and the associated health problems caused by more sedentary and poor diet lifestyles.

Major sporting events have a huge opportunity to remind us all of the value of keeping fit and that must start at grassroots level.

The concept of Park Run is superb. Volunteers up and down the country stage 5km runs in local municipal parks for runners young and old.

The atmosphere at these events is engaging, the camaraderie buoyant and the accessibility key to ensuring no barriers to entry to encourage as many participants as possible.

So it's hardly surprising that Stoke Gifford Parish Council have found themselves in the midst of controversy after deciding to charge for the event staged in one of their parks to compensate for the wear and tear caused by the runs.

The likes of Dame Kelly Holmes, Paula Radcliffe and Graeme Le Saux have expressed their surprise about the Council's decision which contradicts general healthy living thinking.

With more than 850 Park Runs taking place around the world, Little Stoke is now the first event where a charge has been proposed, which has brought the story nationwide attention.

Little Stoke Parkrun announced the closure of the event shortly after the Council confirmed that it would start charging, saying the decision violated a “fundamental principle that there should be no barriers to participation and events should always be free.”

The Council may have a point when they say that the event causes damage and inconvenience to the park and local residents and their own finances are unlikely to be unlimited.

Park Run underlined the benefits when they said: "We believe that Park Run has a light footprint in the parks it uses, imposing little or no cost to local communities while bringing substantial benefits in terms of health, community building, support for active lifestyle, and personal development through volunteering."

Park Run have rebutted every point made by the Council and have even suggested working together to work on suitable grant applications, which have apparently been dismissed out of hand.

It hardly helps that Stoke Gifford Parish Council is claimed to be one of the richest parish councils in England, having sold so many huge plots of land to build, maintaining parish council facilities from the interest accrued.

 

So what can the Council do to minimise their reputational damage and turn this into a good news story?

In some ways, it's too late, but given the outcry and the creation of a petition which has already attracted more than 20,000 signatures, the Council have little choice but to reverse their decision.

Accepting swiftly that they have made an error of judgement and misjudged the importance and benefits of Park Run without qualification would be a positive first step.

They need to collaborate with Park Run to ensure that the event remains free, that they support it wholeheartedly and build upon its success. 

Sending out a message that it does not support free organised exercise or wish to be part of the Park Run success story has already tarnished their reputation and will prompt further outcry in such a great year of sport.