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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

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

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