Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Park Run and Common Pool Resources

As a tri-afflete I run. Or, I ran. I’ve currently got problems with my ITB at the moment, so I’m not running as much as I’d like to. Although from that Wikipedia article, I think I’ve worked out why (I’m a pigeon-toed cyclist). Anyway, among the running community in the UK the decision of the Stoke Gifford Parish Council to charge their local Park Run for use of a park has caused a bit of a furore – a petition has currently reached 20,000 signatures. From a governance perspective, I find this fascinating.

Let’s start up with what I don’t know about this particular case:
  •  It’s not clear from the reporting if there is an issue of conflict, with other users of the park regularly feeling they cannot use this particular park on a Saturday morning because it is over-run with runners (pun not intended).
  •  I don’t know the population of the village concerned, or whether the Park Run is a lot of incomers.
  •  I do not know if the Parish Council considered increasing their precept on the Council Tax to pay for further maintenance of the park concerned.

What I do know is this – it appears to be a classic case of the difficulty in managing a Common Pool Resource. In economics, a Common Pool Resource is one where you can’t easily stop people using it (it’s non-excludable) but where people using the resource deplete it until it cannot be used by anyone (it’s rivalrous). In this case the park is a Common Pool Resource because the Parish Council couldn't stop Park Run in the first place (it's non-excludable) and it create rivalry in two way: you can't easily share a path with hundreds of runners; and all those stomping feet will create wear-and-tear. This is different to an apple (a private good) which is excludable, no one else can eat it at the same time as you, and once you have eaten it, it has gone (it’s rivalrous); or street lighting (a public good) which is non-excludable (my A-Level economics teacher used to have a great skit on coin-operated street lights) and non-rivalrous, unless someone casts a particularly large shadow.

Neo-classical economics suggests that unless common pool resources are brought into the market (made excludable in some way), or are managed by bureaucracies, then the natural outcome will be the tragedy of the commons: every man (I use the pronoun purposefully) will use up the resource to their maximum extent which will mean it is eventually depleted for everyone. It sounds like this is what Stoke Gifford Parish Council believed was happening here. The Park Run was using the resource and it was being depleted to the detriment of everyone. Therefore a market solution was to make them pay.

The only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for economics, the wonderful Elinor Ostrom, through actual empirical research, not fancy econometric modelling, basically said the neo-classical argument was rubbish. There were thousands of examples across the world where people had got together to manage common pool resources themselves. Close-knit webs of social ties meant that people trusted each other to use just enough of the resource. It also meant people were aware of the needs of others, so that if they over-used the resource then other people would suffer. Management of such resources can be co-produced by communities and government actors.

It sounds like the organisers of this Park Run wanted to get something like this going. The BBC reporting states:
“Geoff Keogh, a Parkrun organiser, told the meeting he did not believe the run had a significant impact on the park, but volunteers would be willing to undertake maintenance activities or litter picks "as a way of offsetting whatever the perceived costs might be to the council".”
The organisers wanted to give a bit, and ensure their event was still accessible, and regain the trust of the Parish Council. But the Parish Council view is that “it was "unfair" to expect non-running residents to pay for path upkeep”.

The fact that “fairness” has been thrown into the argument does suggest that a level of trust has broken down in this case. It also highlights that where there are difference in culture – in the case of my own research I’m interested in social class dynamics – getting collaborative management of common pool resources going can be very difficult. In this case, it would be really good if the District Council could come in and mediate, but I doubt now that they have the resources – as Helen Sullivan commented, such “Big Society” action to deliver collaborative management actually requires a “Big State”.  

Anyway, I don’t have any solutions for the residents of Little Stoke, or those runners. But it’s a fascinating case, and I hope someone is planning some doctoral research on it. What is more, as local authority budgets get cut more and more and basic maintenance becomes a luxury, I think we are going to see many more example of such battles of common pool resources.