The Park Run story rumbles on with celebrities and sports stars wading into the debate about Stoke Gifford Parish councillors voting to impose costs on organisers for using its facilities. Dame Kelly Holmes has had her say (“it’s a disgrace”), as has Tory boy ex rower James Cracknell whose beloved party has slashed funding to local councils, forcing them to charge extortionate amounts for football and rugby pitches, and reality TV star Ben Fogle, who says councillors should “hang their heads in shame”. Five days after the momentous decision, I still find myself sitting just about on the fence, but edging slightly towards the council. But my indecision could be final.
I am not sure if my increasing sympathy towards the council is down to a subconscious defence of the underdog, because that, increasingly, is how I perceive things to be. It is true that feelings are running high among residents where I live, but I would dispute that feelings are all one way, as they plainly are in the eye of media and their celebrity Park Run supporters.
I have said before that the entire debate has raised other issues like the substantial amounts footballers pay to use the facilities at Little Stoke. It costs £60 per game to hire a pitch and players put the posts and nets up themselves. Player subscriptions vary per club, but it’s usually around £6 a game, plus an annual fee. They also get changing rooms, toilets and showers, although youth and minor league clubs (children’s leagues) get nothing at all, except a marked out pitch. Oh, and they get car parking. Many people, not just a few, are of the view that if the footballers pay so much to play football, then why can’t the joggers fork out, even if it’s just a quid? After all, they say, we agree society has issues regarding obesity and a general lack of fitness. Is the only type of exercise that should be affordable be jogging round a park?
I am not sorry to bring politics into this because it is relevant. It has been a deliberate policy by the current and previous government to starve local authorities of funding. This has consequences for local sport in terms of councils providing facilities and how much they charge people, something Cracknell should note. His stinking political party certainly hasn’t done much to make people “healthier or happier,” as he helpfully points out.
But the debate on sporting facilities in general has not reached the wider public via a one-eyed media that can only see one story and it’s about time it did. Our local parish council cannot change the world and I suspect in time it will cave in to the media pressure and withdraw any suggestion of charging. Perhaps that might be a good thing, but only if the wider debate is extended.
In our unequal society, there will be many people who do not have access to sports facilities at all. They might not have enough money to play a team sport, they might not be able to afford to use a gymnasium, they might not live anywhere near a Park Run. More affluent people will be able to use expensive gyms, to pay high team subscriptions and send their children to private schools which usually have top notch sports facilities, with their own fields which have not all been sold off, as happened to state schools under the Thatcher/Major/Blair/Brown and Cameron governments.
A wider debate is what is needed, a joined up strategy to get people playing sports – a wide variety of sports – to make our country healthier. Park Run has done this, as have the myriad of sports clubs up and down the country, but only politicians with vision and drive can make things happen. Instead of slagging off Stoke Gifford parish council for a decision I honestly believe was made sincerely in good faith, even if there is a strong case to say it was a bad decision, how about Messrs Fogle, Holmes and, in particular Tory boy Cracknell, putting their heads together and telling the politicians to invest in the future of our country by investing in our country’s future?
The whole wretched thing is drifting at the moment. The Park Run and its runners are not the bad guys and I don’t think a handful of volunteer, unpaid councillors are intentionally the bad guys either.
A little leadership from someone, somewhere can surely resolve this sorry situation, return the runners to Little Stoke and ensure that affordable team sports are available to all. At the moment we’ve got some people paying nothing – which may be the right thing – and some paying a lot, in each case for very little. We should all be on the same side on this one. Arguing amongst ourselves benefits no one and lets the real villains, the politicians who control the nation’s purse strings, to get away with it.