1. Environmental
September 11, 2019

It’s time for London and the surrounding counties to start scrapping golf courses

By Jonn Elledge

I have, in idle moments of late, been trying to work out the answer to a slightly niche question: how much land in and around London is given over to golf courses.

It’s certainly a lot. Wikipedia lists 36 of the bloody things in Greater London alone – although even as someone who has never played golf in my life, I can see at a glance that this list isn’t comprehensive, because there’s at least one which definitely exists which isn’t on there. Goldshake.com lists 70, and although a couple of these are indoors so don’t count, that list seems to have the same problem. Here’s a map:

The numbers represent the number of courses in particular areas. Image: GolfShake.com

And this, remember, is just Greater London itself: the semi-rural counties beyond, which are nonetheless part of London’s functional geography, have plenty more. There’s a stat from housing consultant Colin Wiles which has done the rounds since 2013, hich says that more of Surrey is given over to golf courses than housing. This seems to be a matter of interpretation – as I understand it, it doesn’t count gardens as part of housing, which anyone with a garden may take issue with – but nonetheless it’s not entirely without basis. Surrey has over 140 golf courses. That’s a lot.

And golf courses, remember, take up a lot of space: somewhere between 30 and 60 hectares each (roughly 1.5 to 3 Green Parks). That is a lot of land we are reserving specifically for affluent middle aged men to push balls around on. 

What’s the problem here, you ask? If that’s how someone wants to spend their Saturday, who are we to judge?

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The problem is that the land around London is finite and expensive. Land given over to golf is land that can’t be used for housing or jobs or schools. And while some of these facilities may be open to the wider public, many are not. It means that huge chunks of land are reserved for rich peoples’ leisure time, in the midst of a housing crisis. 

I think it’s worth asking whether, in the midst of a housing crisis, this is the best use of a scarce common resource.

There is another way. Glasgow, long considered by connoisseurs to be one of the greatest cities on these islands, has moved to boost its reputation yet further by seriously considering reforesting its golf courses. From the Herald:

The city council earlier this year announced a climate emergency – and an aspiration to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Separately it also launched a consultation on the future of six of its public golf courses, key green space smack in the middle of Scotland’s most densely populated areas.

Now an influential group of councillors has called for the courses – including the 18-hole Littlehill, Lethamhill and Linn Park – to be turned in to forests, wetlands or even allotments if they shut.

Those alternative uses are not housing,of course – from what I know of the Glaswegian housing market, it has a long way to go before it becomes as dysfunctional as London’s. But what those uses all have in common is that they are a lot more environmentally friendly and a lot less anti-social than the previous usage. (Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England has noticed golf courses are, ironically, not terribly green: “As well as taking vast amounts of land out of public access, golf courses are extremely water intensive,” a spokesperson told the BBC in 2013.)

London boroughs, too, have been known to review their golf courses. In 2017, Lewisham closed one of the oldest courses in the capital, Beckenham Place Park, to remodel it as public park land. It’s rather lovely, if you’re in the area. 

There are downsides, of course. The closure of the publicly-owned Beckenham Place was greeted by an outcry from those who wanted to play golf but couldn’t afford membership at expensive private clubs. This is a shame, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the space will be of use to a much wider share of the population as a park than as a golf course. And, at a period in history in which austerity has forced many, many schools to sell their playing fields, it is not clear why golfers should be our first priority when it comes to land use. 

So here’s a proposal: Beckenham Place Park should not be the last golf course in the London commuter belt to shut up its club house. In their current form, these spaces are bad for the environment, and anti-social, and there are too many of the bloody things. Use them for housing. Turn them into parks. Take a leaf out of Glasgow’s book and turn them into forests, even. 

But land is scarce; golf courses are not. There’s an obvious solution here.

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