Within 2km of a station, south east England has golf courses with room for 500,000 homes

Get a lot of houses on that, Tiger. Image: Getty.

Last summer, Alasdair Rae at the University of Sheffield wrote a blog post showing that about 0.54 per cent of the UK is golf course. It’s not much: Rae described it as roughly the same area as Greater Manchester; although in comparison it is roughly twice as much space as urban parks (0.27 per cent of the UK), and more than four times as much as the amount of continuous urban fabric (0.13 per cent).

As Rae points out, the amount of space given over to golf courses has come up several times in the UK media, including on the BBC, in the Financial Times and the Independent, amongst others. These discussion often revolve around the environmental impact of golf (generally negative, though I found little research on it) and whether golf is the best use of that space.

On the environmental side, golf’s apologists, such as commentator Peter Alliss quoted in the BBC article above, claim that much of a golf course acts as a “sanctuary for wildlife” and that they use less pesticides and fertiliser than a farm. However, farms produce food – and anyone who believes that golf courses are in any way natural has simply lost sight of what natural, untouched land actually looks like. And while a golf course can serve as a sanctuary for some wildlife, so too can a park – with the crucial difference that parks can also be enjoyed by the vast majority of the non-golfing public,

My interest here is not in the environmental debate, but rather questions about the most appropriate land use. With that in mind, I’m taking a look at the amount of land given over to golf close to train stations in London, South East and East England, the three region of the UK with the highest house prices, reflecting the high demand for housing in the London commuter belt and other cities in these areas.

I’ve arbitrarily selected a 2km radius from each train station, where it would take roughly 25 minutes of walking at a moderate pace to travel from the edge of the circle to its centre if travelling in a straight line.

Overall, there is some 191m m2 of golf course land within 2km of a train station in London, the South East and East of England. That’s some 47,218 acres, or 19108.5 hectares. That’s enough for 573,255 new homes at a very low density of just 30 homes per hectare. At a higher density, such as 80 dwellings per hectare terraced housing, that’s some 1,528,680 homes. There is 7.7bn m2 of land and water within 2km of a train station in London, the South East and East of England, and 2.47 per cent of it is golf course.

If we lower the radius to 1km, there is still 41m m2 (10,184 acres, 4,121.3 hectares) of golf course within a single kilometre of a train station, enough space to build 123,639 low density suburban houses, or 329,704 higher density houses. Certainly not enough to solve the UK’s housing issues, but it could still make a big difference.

Golf Course Map

The following map highlights in bright pink all golf course land within 2km of a train station. If the radius of two or more train stations overlaps, the train station with more passengers takes precedence, to avoid double counting of space. You can see a full screen version here.

This chart shows the ten stations with the greatest percentage of their surrounding area devoted to golf. These percentages are of all surface area, including the stations themselves, waterways, roads, etc. The actual percentage of usuable land devoted to golf is therefore at least slightly higher in all instances.

None of these stations have particularly high passenger volumes, with only West Byfleet and Elmstead Woods having more than a million passengers in 2016–17. Longcross, where the surrounding area is more than a quarter golf course, had less than 15,000 passengers last year and has no evening or weekend service.


I’m more interested in stations with both high passenger volumes and significant proportions of golf course nearby, some of which I have highlighted on the map above. For example, Maidenhead (below left) had over 4.6m passengers in 2017, and has a large golf course located right next to the station. Maidenhead will also be the western Crossrail terminus from December 2019, so those numbers are likely to increase drastically as commuters move into the newly built homes in the area.

Likewise 7.1 per cent of the area surrounding Richmond, the 35th busiest train station in the UK with 11.7m passengers in 2016–17, is golf course. The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead have published plans to build some 2,000 homes on the golf course site, though Richmond Park Golf Course is likely to stay a golf course for the foreseeable future.

I am not suggesting all golf courses should be concreted over and replaced with housing or offices. Rather, I am suggesting that the use of this land for golf does not make sense, given the many other possibilities. Access to urban green space is associated with improved general health and wellbeing (World Health Organization 2017), but it is difficult to see how a golf course – restricted to paying members or ticket holders – can have the same positive impact as a public park that anyone can visit.

Perhaps more councils should follow the example of Lewisham, which closed the Beckenham Park course in 2016 and converted it into a park to save money and provide more benefit to the majority of non-golfing local residents, although it is still visible on the map above.

Technical Notes and Data Sources

Golf course data is from the Ordnance Survey OS Open Greenspace dataset. Unfortunately it is not divisible by UK region or local authority, so I matched golf course coordinates to Regional Full Extent Boundaries data for London, the South East and East of England. I got train station coordinates from Doogal, a fantastic resource for British geographical data, and passenger numbers from the Office for Rail and Road.

As always, code is available on GitHub.

This article was originally published on Evan Odell’s own website. It appears here with his permission.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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