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. Golfshake.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, 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.