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In charging runners to use parks, councils are shooting themselves in the foot

Edmund Stubbs, 14 April 2016

The £116 billion spent on NHS services this year is a colossal sum of money. It needs to be due to the huge demand for healthcare from Britain’s unhealthy population. Because of this, although budgets in other government departments, including local government, have been substantially cut, the NHS’s has been expanded, and will need to be every year for the foreseeable future.

Local government funding is experiencing quite the opposite. Communities secretary Greg Clark has stated that councils will have to implement a 6.7 per cent reduction in funding between 2016 and 2020. For this reason local councils are having to make tough decisions;  reducing staffing costs and rolling back service provision.

The decision of Stoke Gifford parish council (located near Bristol) to charge the organisation Parkrun to use its local park for events has attracted much negative media attention in the last few days. The council arguing that the increased footfall in their parks each week resulting from Parkrun’s organised events is entailing increased maintenance costs.

On Tuesday Civitas published a book entitled The Health of the Nation: Averting the demise of universal healthcare. This publication is a collection of essays written by health academics, NHS managers, doctors, journalists and a former secretary of state for health. The consensus of opinion arising from its pages highlights the importance of looking beyond the NHS in order to guarantee British healthcare’s future.

Authors emphasise the importance of individuals accepting increased responsibility for their own health and the promotion of enhanced preventative healthcare measures. These must be considered as part of a strategy of ‘health in all polices’. The book’s authors further emphasise the crucial role charities and civil society in general could have in improving the nation’s health in the present century.

For understandable reasons, Stoke Gifford council obviously did not have such considerations in mind when they proposed their new parks policy. They have their own finances to protect. However, as emphasised in Civitas’s The Health of the Nation, any measures that promote good population health are likely to prove extremely cost effective. Events such as Parkrun’s in Stoke Gifford do not even cost the council any money to facilitate!

Parkrun’s event represents a good example of civil society doing exactly what our book’s authors recommend. Parkrun is a charity that assists people of all ages to become and to remain active; thereby improving population health and encouraging people to take more responsibility for their personal health and wellbeing.

Local government chiefs, even at the parish council level, ought to be better informed so that they can see the potential to save money in the long term by adopting health promoting policies. Healthier elderly people involved with schemes such as Parkrun’s are less likely to need social care services at the expense of local councils and the financial benefit for the NHS is obvious with a reduced demand on the service. Money saved on acute services can be reallocated to local government.

The neglect of a ‘health in all policies approach’ at the local level will do a lot more harm to local council budgets in the long term than that caused by a few hundred extra pairs of feet running on their park paths each week.

Edmund Stubbs, Healthcare Researcher, Civitas

To read The Health of the Nation: Averting the demise of universal healthcare click here.

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