Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Big Society Running Event

Just in case the big government fans are still struggling with the Big Society idea, another example. After weeks of bullying from one of my more evangelical running friends, yesterday I attended Cambridge Parkrun for the first time. I had resisted for a long while, as it involved being in Milton at 9am, on Saturday morning - not a time I am used to being anywhere except under a duvet. So what is it?

Parkrun is a not for profit organisation that organises weekly 5km runs, mostly in the UK. It has some commercial sponsors - Lucozade Sport, Sweatshop, Nike and the London Marathon, and encourages donations, but all the events are organised by volunteers - regular runners who occasionally help organise to help keep the event going. Making innovative use of the internet (you don't register for each event, just register once for all of the many Parkrun events runs nationally), it also means that each event is free to enter, and you don't have to register in advance, you just turn up (with a barcode you've printed off the internet) - a model of efficiency - and after each event there are detailed results available online.

In short, the event just works, and encourages many people who wouldn't take regular exercise to get fitter, improving their quality of life and health - all organised without help from the state to make it happen, or more to the point, it doesn't worry (too much) about the things that Council's worry about that might stop it happening.

The Cambridge version is run at Milton Country Park - which itself is now run by a not-for-profit trust after South Cambs District Council found it too expensive for to run the park themselves.

Compare and contrast to the Cambridge Half Marathon. This used to be a popular running event that I understand was essentially killed by Council bureaucracy. There has been a recent attempt to reintroduce the event. I sat through several meetings on the subject before resigning as a Councillor, and it was pretty clear the prospective organisers of a new Cambridge Half Marathon were going to have a very uphill struggle to get through all the hoops the Council were going to demand before the event went anywhere near a Council controlled open space or public highway. Think clearance from a joint committee of police, ambulance service and Council for one (that even had a name, that I forget). And of course the County Council needing to give permission to close any roads, the first hurdles for which seemed to be decided on the whim of one or two highways officers.

Meanwhile, as part of their contribution to the government spending that is running at a deficit compared to tax raised of around 10% of the country's entire national income, councils up and down the land spend a fortune of taxpayers cash on tackling health inequalities, and our NHS devotes its scarce resources to reducing obesity, and treating the diseases it causes.

To my mind, Parkrun is a typical example of the Big Society in action - a big thanks to the volunteers and sponsors who help make it happen...

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