Should cities be turning golf courses into parks?

Look at all that empty space: the Mid Surrey Golf Course, Richmond-upon-Thames, c1990. Image: Getty.

One of the odder subplots of the coronavirus crisis has been that it’s given Britain’s tabloid newspapers a whole new way to feel outraged towards the population of Britain. The papers have been filled with stories about the “selfish” people flouting lockdown rules and flocking to the parks and beaches to take advantage of the unusually warm spring weather. In the early weeks of the crisis, fears that the social contact this entailed would spread the virus led many councils to close their parks altogether. 

All of which felt a little harsh towards those who live in flats or shared properties, and so are rather more in need of such spaces than those with their own gardens. So in early April, author and Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole started a petition under the headline, “Don’t close parks – open up golf courses so there’s more space to exercise safely”. 

Shrubsole’s argument – which seems to have been inspired in part by a viral tweet from Sunday Times reporter Rosamund Urwin – is simple. For reasons of both physical and mental health, people need access to green space. If the park system isn’t big enough to provide that without pushing people to stand too close to one another, then why not make better use of that other system of vast, manicured green spaces on the edges of our cities?

The petition is extremely unlikely to actually become policy. It’s had nearly 7,000 signatories – not bad, but a figure that’s dwarfed by the estimated 1.5 million golfers in the UK. Many council-owned golf courses are already, de facto if not de jure, open to the public. (I’ve walked across several.) As for the many private ones, while the government probably could find a way of compelling landowners to allow the public to access their land, finding it doesn’t seem likely to be the priority during this crisis. There isn’t a button that ministers can press that would magically turn golf courses into parks.

But the petition – and the enthusiasm for what might be termed golf course reclamation among Twitter users – has highlighted questions about whether a sport that relatively few people play is really the best use of urban land. A 2017 study Shrubsole conducted for Friends of the Earth found that golf courses take up 10 times as much land in the UK as allotments. (These, for non British readers, are collectively owned plots of land, which individuals can use for small-scale farming. Bafflingly, it's only golf courses, not allotments, that qualify for agricultural subsidies.)

Every golf course in London. Image: John Murray/CityMetric.

In a piece of research for CityMetric two years later, John Murray calculated that, within London’s orbital M25 motorway, there are 189 courses covering 76.4 km² (29.5 mi²). In other words, 3.3% of all land in and around London – one acre in every 30 – is given over to golf. Given not just the overcrowding of the city’s parks, but the overcrowded and expensive nature of its housing, it is not clear that this is the best way of using a scarce resource.

London isn’t the only city where golfers can effectively buy access to better green spaces. The Trust for Public Land’s Park Score index, which evaluates park access and quality in cities across the US, has given Los Angeles a score of 46 out of 100 (New York City gets 77). Yet the city is dotted with manicured golf courses and exclusive country clubs which, as Malcolm Gladwell once raged about in an enjoyable episode of his podcast, even benefit from a protected tax status. In 2017 the Los Angeles Times noted that “less than half of L.A. County residents have easy access to a park”. But the rich ones? They can buy their way in.

The pandemic has already led numerous cities to reconsider how they allocate land to different modes of transport, for example by converting roads into walking space or cycle lanes. None have yet discussed investigating more radical land reform policies, that might bring some of those private green spaces back into public use. But maybe they should.

Britain’s parks are still open, by the way: on 18 April, local government secretary Robert Jenrick stepped in, to explicitly tell councils that "people need parks". Perhaps the tabloid press would consider turning its attention to Britain’s selfish golfers, instead.

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


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

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