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.
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?
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.
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. 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?
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.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for providing us with the opportunity to have this important debate. The debate is useful and timely: as the days grow longer and we get warmer weather—over the weekend we thought we were going to get some, but that seems to have changed—more and more people will be using their local parks and green spaces for organised or spontaneous events as groups or as individuals. Local parks are, of course, community assets and it is important that local authorities, as the stewards of those assets, maintain them for communities to use. We have a long tradition of free use of public parks, but—as I shall shortly set out—it is appropriate that, in the right circumstances, local authorities are able to charge for the use of specific facilities in those public parks.
We should acknowledge the importance of our public parks and green spaces. They are places where one can exercise, relax and enjoy being part of a community or find peace and solitude in a busy world. They are also places of ever-changing beauty, where the march of the seasons is marked by growth, bloom and falling leaves. Our parks and green spaces are certainly good for the soul and good for the body.
This is an Olympic year and, with our elite athletes heading to Rio for the Olympics and Paralympics in August and September, we should not be surprised if, inspired by what I am sure will be the golden glories of Team GB, young people—and those who perhaps are not so young—are inspired to demonstrate their own athletic abilities. The place many will head to for that is their local park.
The local park is a natural venue for exercise and sport and it always has been. For generations, our parks have played host to countless local sporting triumphs as they are transformed, for a short time, from parkland to hallowed turf. Our parks and green spaces are therefore not just vital community assets but special places where, for many, memories are made. I freely acknowledge that proper maintenance of those community assets rightly requires investment and financial commitment from local authorities.
There is no problem with local authorities using parks to raise revenue. They legitimately charge for a variety of events and specific activities that take place in their local parks.
I will come on to what we believe it is or is not reasonable for people to pay for. I understand my hon. Friend’s point that the parish council, in anything it charges for, may simply be looking to cover maintenance costs and so on rather than to raise revenue to put into the coffers for revenue’s sake.
It is appropriate for the public to pay a reasonable sum for the exclusive use of a facility such as a tennis court or a football pitch or for shared use of a facility such as a golf course. It is also appropriate for charges to be made for special or seasonal events such as outdoor concerts or other ticketed events that generate a profit for the local authority or the event organiser.
The argument on both sides is interesting, and I too declare an interest as a runner; I am going to the sixth Eastleigh Parkrun on Saturday morning. I am concerned because we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) about male-dominated sports tending to involve subscriptions being paid for general use, and an understanding that there is wear and tear. However, for half an hour once a week, with no clear wear and tear issues, I would be concerned. We have an obesity crisis in my constituency and problems of diabetes and amputations. Parks are for people and people make parks. I want there to be clarity about whether, if we start making charges for such significant runs, which happen across the country, we will set a dangerous precedent. Things are working very well in other parish councils.
Thank you, Mr Davies. I am not necessarily disinterested, but that is not an interest that I pursue at this point.
We have no issue with local authorities charging for the use of facilities when it is legitimate to do so. Indeed, it was the Conservative-led coalition Government who legislated to give local authorities the general power of competence enabling them, among other things, to charge for the use of specific facilities where they considered they could not rely upon other legislation in doing so. As with all local authority decisions, the decision to charge for the use of a specific facility should be both transparent and accountable. Local authorities are, of course, ultimately accountable to their electorate, who can exercise the ultimate sanction at the ballot box. Indeed, earlier this month millions were doing just that as they voted in local elections. Where a local authority decides to make a charge it should, of course, be clear about what it is charging for, how much it is charging, and under what power it is making the charge. Otherwise, how are those affected by the charge to know that it is fair, legal and proportionate?
There must also be accountability. Those affected by the decisions of democratically elected local authorities of course have the right to object to them. Otherwise power would be exercised without responsibility or consequence, although, in response to what my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said on the matter, I would always encourage communities to lobby councillors in a respectful and dignified manner, and not in a way that none of us would find acceptable and appropriate.
Parkrun is a network of local runners, and Parkruns are free, weekly 5 km runs in local parks. The runs take place every Saturday morning and are free to participate in, and the local organisation is done by local volunteers. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke mentioned profits, and my understanding is that Parkrun is a not-for-profit company that relies on donations and sponsorship. It is not an organisation that relies on membership, or on subscription or registration fees. I understand that the events are run by volunteers, and are set up not to make a profit for anyone but merely as a vehicle for people to come together as my hon. Friends have described, for a morning run on a Saturday.
On that point about coming together, does the Minister agree that there is still a worrying gender gap—of about 2 million—between the number of women and men doing sport? Parkrun and other schemes, ideas and activities like it make an important contribution to trying to close that gap, and that should be encouraged and acknowledged.
My hon. Friend has immense knowledge of the subject and did an excellent job as Sports Minister. I agree with her, because many males take part in organised sporting activity such as football; but often once girls reach adulthood they do not take part in organised sports. Some do, but the majority do not. Therefore I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend said about Parkrun, if it means women feel able to come together and exercise in a safe environment because they are in a group of other women who support them. It is an excellent example of communities organising events on a voluntary basis. It is a great use of parks, and, as has been said, it enables the public to enjoy healthy exercise. The Government strongly endorse that.
I am on the Health Committee and was involved in the recent childhood obesity report, so I understand all the arguments. We need to encourage not just more women but more people—full stop—into sport. However, the case in question involves a very small parish council. I have mentioned that I chair the all-party group on local democracy, and parish councils do not have the same revenue streams as city and district councils. The parks must still be maintained.
I have been working with the National Association of Local Councils to lobby the Government so that, for example, when we devolve business rates to town and city councils through devolution deals, we also look at devolving some of them to parish councils as well, if the town and parish councils put a strong argument together. I am not a mathematician but I do not know how they can be expected to maintain something when often—I know this is true of some parish councils that I have dealt with through the group—they have a budget of a couple of grand a year. How can they pay to maintain the park when it is getting so much more use, if they have no more revenue streams?
We have a strong relationship with NALC and I very much respect my hon. Friend’s work in the area in question, which is extremely important. We have had significant discussions and we have made it clear that the parish precept is the way in which parish councils will provide services. As I have said, in many other cases there are significant ways in which councils can legitimately secure other income for the use of facilities such as tennis courts and football pitches.
We were disappointed that, in asking people who use Little Stoke park for Parkrun to make what it describes as a contribution, Stoke Gifford parish council chose to become the first local authority in the country—-indeed, as I understand it, the first in the world— effectively to charge for that type of community running event. It is quite legitimate to charge for specific facilities and specific activities. It is quite another thing to seek to overturn a long-standing tradition of free access to parks for everyday use. The Secretary of State has written to Councillor Brown, the chairman of Stoke Gifford parish council, about the matter. As I have explained, the Government strongly support the organising of events by communities on a voluntary basis to enable the public to enjoy healthy exercise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said, and as the Secretary of State put it, that is the sort of activity that local authorities should encourage, and I echo that sentiment.
Local authorities rightly have the power to charge for the use of specific facilities that they provide. The Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 lists some of those facilities, such as sports centres, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses and bowling greens. The everyday use of a public park should not be charged for. Our parks and our green spaces are precious. It is entirely right that local authorities, which are entrusted to look after those valuable community assets, take their stewardship of them seriously. That should not be at the expense of the communities who use them.
Our parks are almost endlessly adaptable. They are more than turf and vegetation; they are a home to nature and a home away from home for communities of dog walkers, cyclists, and those who enjoy a stroll or a run. Every Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, in nearly 400 parks in the United Kingdom, they are the venue for a free Parkrun. Charging for facilities and events is quite legitimate. Seeking to charge for everyday use is not. I welcome the debate that we have had, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke on securing it.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).