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

Concrete it. Image: Getty.

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.

I should warn you up front that I still don’t know (please do write in), but 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. 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:

And this, remember, is just Greater London itself: the semi-rural counties beyond, which are nonetheless part of London’s functional geography, offer plenty more. There’s a stat which has been doing the rounds since 2013, which 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. Surrey has no shortage of golf courses. Its houses prices, however, suggest it does have a shortage of homes.

And golf courses, remember, take up a lot of space: somewhere between 30 and 60 hectares each, which is 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?

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. Even at the lowest housing densities discussed in the London Plan, 35 homes per hectare, a small-ish golf course could provide land for over 1,000 homes. But they’re not doing that. They’re providing land for golf.

And while some of these facilities are open to the wider public, many are not. It means that huge chunks of land are reserved for rich peoples’ leisure time. 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 anything like as dysfunctional as London’s. But what those uses all have in common is that they are a lot better than the previous usage. Golf courses aren’t just anti-social, after all, they’re un-environmental, requiring vast quantities of water and herbicide to maintain. (Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England has noticed that golf courses are, ironically, not terribly green.) Replacing them with things that aren’t golf courses will make the world better.

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 a proper public park. The closure of the publicly-owned course was greeted by an outcry from those who wanted to play golf but couldn’t afford membership at expensive private clubs, which 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 it was 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. 

Because land is scarce, and golf courses are not. There’s an obvious solution here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.