Jack Lopresti – 2016 Speech on Parkrun and Organised Sporting Events

Below is the text of the speech made by Jack Lopresti, the Conservative MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke, in Westminster Hall on 11 May 2016.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered powers of local government to charge for organised sporting events.

I have called the debate mainly to highlight an ongoing dispute between Stoke Gifford parish council in my constituency and Parkrun Ltd. It has now developed into a much bigger issue to do with the freedom, authority and ability of directly elected local councils to charge for organised sporting events in their parks and recreational areas. The other question is what actually constitutes an organised sporting event.

The dispute has led to the intervention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who threatened—in a letter to the chairman of the parish council, Councillor Ernie Brown, who is present in the Public Gallery—to consider the use of legislation to stop Stoke Gifford parish council charging for organised sporting events in its park. In the autumn, I was contacted by a small number of local residents, and I passed their concerns on to the parish council, mindful of the fact that, ultimately, this is a matter for directly elected parish councillors.

I want to say that, obviously, I fully support and understand the aims of Parkrun Ltd as an admirable organisation for getting people to do exercise. The fact that a small, local community idea, which started in Teddington, now provides organised runs every weekend in 850 locations and 12 countries throughout the world is fantastic. I understand that UK Parkrun Ltd attracts a large number of runners, with some 395 events every Saturday and Sunday. That is clearly great.

Let me set the scene. Little Stoke park is used regularly by about 3,000 people for organised sporting events, including 12 regular football teams, 12 occasional football teams, four rugby teams, tag ruby league and Australian rules football, and it provides a 3G all-weather football pitch. Little Stoke park has a significant number of other, diverse user groups, amounting to about 1,000 people, who access the existing community hall facilities on a regular basis, and the venue also accommodates occasional bookings, which include the likes of children’s birthday parties and other one-off events. The general public have access to a range of other facilities on the site, including a BMX track, a Jurassic park and a children’s play area.

In recent years, the average income generated from pitch and hall hire at Little Stoke park has been approximately £35,000 per year. Over that time, there has been considerable investment in the site’s large car park, of £55,000; in parks machinery, of £90,000; and in a large section of path, which has been converted into a pedestrian and cycle route and incorporates solar lighting in the ground to enhance the safety of park users. Furthermore, the construction costs of a 4 metre-wide path on one side of the park were £140,000, while the 3G pitch was also enhanced at a cost of £52,000 during the same period. That all shows me that we are talking about a sensible and responsible parish council, which is making sure that its park is well managed, with good outdoor facilities that can continue to be used well into the future.

In the past three years, the parish council has welcomed Parkrun, but weekend runs organised by it had begun to dominate the park, with up to 300 runners arriving every weekend. The park is just over 30 acres and has 120 car parking spaces for visitors, but all the parking spaces are filled by the Parkrun runners on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)

I hear what my hon. Friend has to say, but does he also agree that sport and, in particular, Parkrun have a really important role to play in bringing people from different backgrounds together, and bringing communities and women together—a lot of women enjoy a park run, with the camaraderie of other women? Obviously, there are cost issues, but does he not think that such activities should be encouraged, rather than discouraged?

Jack Lopresti

I am not, of course, seeking to discourage any such activities. As I said in my opening remarks, I appreciate fully what Parkrun does and is trying to achieve, and the benefits of that. The debate is about the ability of a local council to raise money for the maintenance of its facilities, and about what constitutes an organised sporting event, which I will come to later in my remarks.

The parish council is not seeking a large amount from Parkrun Ltd—a contribution that would have equated to less than a pound a runner, put towards the maintenance and possible future enhancement of the facilities. The chairman of the parish council, Ernie Brown, even offered to apply for a grant for Parkrun—all Parkrun had to do was to ask him officially, but it has not done so. The parish council has also made it clear that the dispute is not about charging individual runners—just as it would not charge individuals who go for walks, or runs—but only about charging for regular organised events.

Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)

I am one of the vice-presidents of the Local Government Association, and I chair the all-party group on local democracy. That is on behalf of the National Association of Local Councils, which represents 7,000 town and parish councils. So I can understand what my hon. Friend’s parish council is going through. The Government talk about devolution and more local powers, so I am shocked that we have to have this debate, to be honest, especially as the council had gone to so much trouble even to get Parkrun involved and to help it apply for grants. How can we talk about devolving powers more locally, only for the Government to stick their nose in? How can that be right?

Jack Lopresti

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we are talking about flies completely in the face of localism and the devolution agenda; a sledgehammer is being used to crack a nut, on an issue that should not be a matter for the Secretary of State or any national Department—this is a local matter.

The point is, with up to 300 people turning up every Saturday and Sunday, and stewards organising and timing the runs, the event is most definitely an organised one. I run regularly in the Bristol half-marathon and the Bradley Stoke 10 km, both of which it is worth noting that I pay for—I accept that, because they are organised sporting events. This year, I know that the Bristol half costs £38, because I entered it in the past few days. Moreover, when my daughter, Sophie, as a teenager, played football for Stoke Lane Ladies at that very park, all the players had to pay £2.50 per game per week, to contribute to the maintenance of the park and its facilities. She has now gone to play rugby in America, while she is studying at university, which I am hugely proud of.

The fact that Parkrun refuses to make a contribution, on principle, to the park for its events means that other local groups and organisations are beginning to question why they have to make a contribution, when Parkrun clearly does not. It is important to note that Parkrun in the UK is a limited company, and not a registered charity. Parkrun only publishes abbreviated accounts, so we cannot see whether it pays its directors or any staff—I have heard it does, but I cannot confirm that. Perhaps the Minister can help us with that in his remarks.

Parkrun has numerous sponsors and supporters for which the full sponsorship details—how much and in return for what—are also not noted in the accounts. Sponsors listed on the website include Fitbit, Intersport, Alzheimer’s Research UK and VitalityHealth. The supporters listed include the London Marathon, the mobile phone company Three, and Muckle LLP, a law firm.

People have made the point that Parkrun Ltd events are organised by local volunteers. That is great, but we must never forget that Stoke Gifford parish council are volunteers who work tirelessly for their local community, as do other volunteers who run many other organised sporting events in the park and make a financial contribution to its upkeep. Incidentally, Parkrun’s website has a shop link on it from which sales are made on behalf of Wiggle Ltd.

I am not against Parkrun making profit and paying staff. I do, however, object to the argument that it should have the right to use Little Stoke park for free for organised events that dominate the park when all other local organisations have to pay to do so. The pressure that some of the Parkrun lobby have put on our democratically elected parish councillors has been appalling: they have received an influx of aggressive emails from non-constituents, 50 freedom of information requests and letters with threats of changes to the law from the Secretary of State. Parkrun has also threatened a judicial review, which would be massively expensive for a small parish council to fight and a further waste of local taxpayers’ money. I have been told, and I take this seriously, that some local councillors feel that a hate campaign is being waged against them.

I would like to highlight some of the legislation referred to in the letters between the Secretary of State and Stoke Gifford parish council. Parish councils have the right to charge for organised sporting events under section 19 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, which gives local authorities the powers to provide various recreational facilities, including

“premises for the use of clubs or societies having athletic, social or recreational objects”.

The Act gives the local authority the power to provide those facilities

“either without charge or on payment of such charges as the authority thinks fit.”

The Secretary of State mentioned in a letter that, under section 151 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, he has general powers to make regulations to amend or revoke any pre-existing powers for the local authority to charge. However, having looked into that with the House of Commons Library, I see that section 152 of the 1989 Act, which defines the relevant authorities that section 151 refers to, does not include parish councils, which suggests that the Secretary of State cannot do that. Recent legislation that the Secretary of State and I voted on in the Localism Act 2011 allows local authorities the power of competence

“to do anything that individuals generally may do.”

Under that power, section 3 of the Act has provisions regarding charging, which, as far as I can see, the parish council meets.

None of that has been tested in a court of law, and hopefully the Secretary of State would not like to embark on an expensive legal battle with a small parish council. Stoke Gifford parish council’s decision to charge Parkrun for the use of its local park is not a matter for central Government and that should remain the case. The truth of the matter is that Parkrun Ltd, however admirable, has become a victim of its own success: it has now reached a size that overwhelms local facilities, so—like other sporting organisations—it needs to make a contribution to the facilities it uses. I do not want to discourage runners—being one myself, I fully appreciate the benefits of keeping fit—but Parkrun Ltd is no longer a small voluntary group; it is an organisation with nearly a million users registered on its website.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that we want people to be realistic about the actual cost of running local services and we want to promote the localism agenda by giving local representatives the power to run their facilities on behalf of local people as they deem fit. The Government have stated their commitment to devolving greater powers to local authorities, but an exception seems to be made when the local parish council does something that Secretary of State does not agree with.