Popular free exercise class suspended after council imposes ‘unaffordable’ fee

Our Parks, which runs four fitness classes every weekend, was told it could no longer use four council-owned parks for free. The move has caused them to suspend sessions, reports Marco Marcelline

Our Parks founder Born Barikor (second from right) with class participants. Credit: Our Parks

A group which has put on free outdoor exercise classes in the borough’s parks for a decade has had to suspend its sessions after Waltham Forest Council demanded it to pay a £25 fee per class.

Our Parks, which runs four fitness classes each weekend at no direct cost to the council, was told in December 2023 that it could no longer use four council-owned parks for free.

At the time, the Waltham Forest Parks Department notified Our Parks that it would need to pay a license fee of £25 for each class it operates. The move prompted months of wrangling with the council, but the parks department has maintained that the fee must be paid.

Founder Born Barikor said the move would cost Our Parks a total of £5,000 a year; a cost he says he cannot take on. He told the Echo: “Unlike private PTs or events companies, we do not charge nor profit from the classes in Waltham Forest. In fact, quite the opposite, for years Our Parks has self funded the Waltham Forest programme [while] catering to some of the most marginalised individuals—those who engage in less than 30 minutes of exercise per week.”

The fee request makes Waltham Forest the only borough in London to charge Born for using its parks, which he describes as especially “sad” because it’s the place where the classes began.

According to Born, the “deeply disheartening decision” to charge Our Parks “overlooks the substantial cost savings [it] generates for LBWF. Depriving individuals, who rely on this programme as their primary outlet for physical activity, not only promotes inactivity but will most likely also incur greater health expenses in the medium and long term”.

Our Parks started in Lloyd Park in March 2014, and for its first two years of operation it was funded entirely by the council. In 2016, the council reduced their funding offer and the programme sought more diverse funding such as from the Mayor of London. Since 2020, it has been entirely self-funded and Born says it is operating at a loss.

In January, the council’s sports and leisure team offered support in exploring external funding opportunities that could help them continue the classes. 

But Born says the flagged funding pots can only be applied to from next month or in April, and he pointed out that the council was asking him to secure funding from elsewhere so he could pay the council a fee that “could easily not be charged”. 

Born, who is Black, adds the programme was especially targeted towards ethnic minority communities who are more susceptible than other groups to having poor health in the borough. He said: “If I hadn’t been so vocal, [Our Parks] would’ve been another ethnically diverse movement that would’ve been put aside because no-one thought through how much this impacts people.”

The programme, which operates in parks such as Lloyd Park, Leyton Jubilee Park, Langthorne Park, and Ridgeway Park, is suspended until the council changes its decision or alternative funding opportunities can be secured. Only one fitness class, a rugby session in Leytonstone, can continue to run because it is completely funded by the Rugby Football Union. 

In an email to council leader Grace Williams seen by the Echo, Born wrote: “We and our Parkers have contacted every Waltham Forest councillor and although several responded with sympathy to our plight, the overriding message is that the council is facing a funding crisis and must seek revenue where it can. I fail to compute how preventing 11,000+ registered Parkers in Waltham Forest from accessing coached exercise for free and improving their mental and physical wellbeing is a sensible calculation as we all know the financial strain mental and physical health issues places on local authority budgets.”

The decision to suspend Our Parks sessions comes just weeks before the organisation’s planned celebration of its ten-year anniversary in Waltham Forest.

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Born says he hopes the council reconsiders its decision to impose the fees, and recognises the “invaluable” service Our Parks provides. Until then he says he is committed to finding a sustainable funding solution to resume operations.

The move has meant four fitness instructors who were contracted on a freelance basis by Our Parks have lost their jobs. 

Leah Jung, who led Our Parks classes at Leyton Jubilee Park every Sunday, is one of them.

She was about to begin what became her last session on Sunday (11th February) when two park rangers came up to her and said she wasn’t allowed to proceed with the class. 

Following a hastily arranged phone conversation with the HR team at Our Parks, the park rangers permitted Leah to continue with her class but the attempt to stop it from happening unsettled some of the attendees.

Leah said: “There were quite a few [sports class] participants there already; they were quite upset because there’s such a community feel at these classes and they’ve been coming for years.”

She adds: “I’m upset as well. A bit of my income is hit. I now have to find extra classes [to teach] within Better Gyms to cover that [income] loss.”

Sarah McDonald found out about Our Parks in a Guardian article while she was recovering from a couple of months illness. “I was delighted to find a local group in Lloyd Park and decided to go along. It was a fantastic boost to my mood and fitness and I met some lovely new local people. I don’t like gyms and being outdoors, even in the drizzle, was a plus.”

Sarah, who admits she struggles with finding motivation to keep fit, found the session she attended to be “brilliant” and was “really sad” that the council wasn’t celebrating it. 

She told the Echo: “I understand they’re struggling to manage public finances but they’ve already withdrawn funding and there’s no additional overheads for the park. It seems perverse to strangle an initiative that brings local residents together and improves mental and physical wellbeing by imposing this fee.”

Regular user Roisin McAteer said the council’s decision displayed a “lack of common sense”, and was “counterintuitive”. Roisin told the Echo she started going to the classes back in January 2022 because she couldn’t afford a gym membership at the time, and she found it to be a “great way to meet people” that she wouldn’t usually meet. 

She says that since attending the classes she has noticed a three-fold benefit to her mental, physical and social wellbeing. Conversations and connections made during classes regularly continue afterwards in a very active WhatsApp group, she said.

Now that the programme is suspended, Roisin says she will find it harder to be motivated to keep fit as she’ll be “lacking that social community” and communal encouragement that Our Parks provided for her.

She added: “We turn up in all weathers – rain, shine, and often downright awful conditions – this is an important part of our lives that the council is taking away from us for no reason.”

Naheed Asghar, cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “Like every local authority we are facing the combined challenges of growing demand for core services with more than a decade of cuts from central government.

“This means that we increasingly rely on income from non-statutory service areas such as parks to safeguard the essential services on which residents rely.

“We regularly get asked to waive fees for free events and sessions in our parks. These fees, which are benchmarked against other London councils, help cover costs including upkeep of grounds, and maintenance of equipment.

“We wrote to Born in January offering to discuss ways in which Our Parks could find alternative sources of funding and we hope to be working with him in the near future.”

A council spokesperson added that the council offers free events including “regular organised walks that not only promote fitness but build friendships” as well as free pilates and Zumba for adults and multi-sports sessions for four to 14-year-olds.

Find out more about Our Parks here, read more about council-run exercise classes here

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