Britain has a lot of golf courses: over a quarter of Europe’s courses are located within the United Kingdom. That’s two-and-a-half times that of the next most numerous country: 1,800 compared to Germany’s 731 – or one course for every 37,000 people, with each German course serving 113,500.
Imagine a typical golf course and your mind might conjure up images of rolling, emerald fairways of the home counties or rugged, windswept heathlands of the Scottish coast. Yet it might be surprising to learn that, despite London taking up around 0.65% of the UK’s total area, over 1 in 20 of the country’s golf courses lie within it. There are no fewer than 94 active golf course (excluding driving ranges and courses with fewer than 9 holes) located within the Greater London area, together covering an area of 4,331 hectares. 21 of London’s boroughs have at least one course; some, such as Enfield, have seven.
For regular players, golf represents an opportunity to spend time outside with friends and colleagues, taking in the fresh air and exercise. Yet given the capital’s myriad constraints on development, it’s surely a stretch to claim that a leisure activity enjoyed by around 1% of the national population (a figure which is likely far less when only the population of London is taken into account) requires such huge tracts of land within a city which is in such dire need of homes?
Below I have set out how I believe that limited, sensitive, development of a small proportion of London’s golf courses could make a significant impact on meeting the city’s housing need as well enhancing biodiversity and opening up vital green space for the benefit of all Londoners.
The London Borough of Golf
The area of Greater London given over to golf courses is vast. If golf courses were a London Borough in their own right, it would be the 15th largest; bigger than Brent (total population: 330,800), and slightly smaller than Sutton. Even discounting privately-owned courses from the measurement, the 43 publicly-owned golf courses in London take up just under 1,600 hectares of land in Greater London. That’s still more than the entire area of Hammersmith & Fulham, which has a population of 185,000.
On average across London, a single hole occupies an area of just over 2.5 hectares (to arrive at this figure I’ve divided the total area of London’s golf couses by the number of holes the provide). That means the average 18 hole course in London has a total area of approximately 46 hectares. It’s difficult to overstate how large this is. To give a sense of scale, the following image shows the outline of Wembley Stadium overlaid on a map of Enfield Golf Course. It fits comfortably within it, taking up the area of just two holes. Wembley Stadium seats 90,000 people. The Excel centre – one of London’s largest buildings – fits comfortably inside it too.
Those living on the fringes of London aren’t limited to playing only on courses within its boundaries, however. There are a further 74 golf courses with an area exceeding 10 hectares within just 5km of London’s boundary, as the following diagram shows:
Who owns London’s Golf Courses?
43 of London’s golf courses are within public ownership, mostly by the London Boroughs themselves. Others are owned by public bodies including the Church of England through the Church Commissioners (perhaps the recent “Coming Home” report by the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community might stimulate some discussions as to whether its 30 hectares of land in Barnet might be put to better use?).
In most cases the freehold is owned by the council and leased to the golf clubs which occupy them; a handful are operated as municipal courses.
Then there are the anomolies: Arkley Golf Club (freehold owned by London Borough of Barnet) has recently been acquired by developer U+I having bought the lease from the club for £300,000 (roughly £14,000 per hectare). Whilst claiming that this would “secure” the future of the club, Matthew Weiner of U+I was careful to point out that such acquisitions “have the potential for longer-term value creation”. Arkley Gold Club lies entirely within the green belt, however with the new London Plan loosening restrictions on the protection of green belt, perhaps this is a canny move given the average property prices in this part of Barnet currently exceed £1m. In it’s draft Local Plan, Enfield Council is already proposing the selective release of some of its green belt to meet housing need which has, inevitably, raised the hackles of locals.
But perhaps these courses are a good source of income for cash-strapped councils? Seemingly not. Enfield Golf Club, to take one example, pays an annual sum of £13,500 to the council for the privilege of renting its 39 hectare golf course in the west of the Borough. That’s slightly less than it costs to rent a two-bedroom flat in the same area for a year.
The remaining courses are owned by various public and private bodies: pension funds, the clubs themselves. The City of London Corporation holds the freehold to two (one in Redbridge and another in Waltham Forest, totalling over 90 hectares of land) and the Crown a further five (three of which are in Richmond-upon-Thames).
Types of Green Space
According to the Ordnance Survey’s Open Green Space dataset, there is 23,684 hectares of accessible green space within London’s boundary. This falls into a range of categories, including Allotments and Community Growing Space, Cemeteries and Public Parks & Gardens. Only three distinct leisure activities warrant their own category: bowling greens (36ha), tennis courts (65ha) and golf courses (4,331ha). Football pitches are commonly used for other uses too, so these are consolidated into a “playing field” category, taking up 2,948ha.
The total area of green space dedicated to sports and leisure in London is roughly equivalent to that of public parks and gardens (although, of course, some parks are often used for sports and games too, as a summer evening visit to Regent’s Park will testify).
Of the 9,950ha or so of land set aside for sport and leisure activities alone, 43.5% of this is dedicated to golf. Golf takes up 17% of all of the available green space in London.
Golf Courses and Planning
London’s green belt covers over 35,000 hectares, more than 22% of the city’s total area. Green belt is protected by national planning legislation as set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and reinforced by the Mayor of London’s regional London Plan, the most recent iteration of which was adopted in March this year.
A second form of protection, unique to London and with many of the same restrictions on development, is what’s known as Metropolitan Open Land (MOL). In addition to the green belt, MOL takes up a further 15½ thousand hectares. That means that, in total, nearly 51,000 hectares – around a third – of London’s land area is subject to strict prohibitions on development.
The majority of golf courses are protected by one of two planning designations through falling within either green belt, Metropolitan Open Land (MOL), or both. Those on the edge of the outer-London boroughs sit entirely within the green belt, generally surrounded by open countryside. Those courses closer to the centre tend to be within built-up areas or adjacent to other areas of open space. Southwark’s Dulwich & Sydenham Hill Golf Course is the closest to central London, lying just within Zone 3 of Transport for London’s fare network.
Policy G3 of the London Plan states the following about Metropolitan Open Land:
MOL protects and enhances the open environment and improves Londoners’ quality of life by providing localities which offer sporting and leisure use, heritage value, biodiversity, food growing, and health benefits through encouraging walking, running and other physical activity.2021 London Plan
Yet the prevailing assumption that golf courses somehow convey these benefits on Londoners seems erroneous. As most people who live close to a golf course will attest, the opportunity to include these spaces as part of a daily run – let alone for planting vegetables – is not one that most Londoners enjoy.
The London Plan demands that MOL designation meet one of the following critera:
- it contributes to the physical structure of London by being clearly distinguishable from the built up area
- it includes open air facilities, especially for leisure, recreation, sport, the arts and cultural activities, which serve either the whole or significant parts of London
- it contains features or landscapes (historic, recreational, biodiversity) of either national or metropolitan value
- it forms part of a Green Chain or a link in the network of green infrastructure and meets one of the above criteria.
By their very nature, golf courses are large and generally flat. Several of London’s courses sit within urban areas, with a clear distinction between the fairways and surrounding houses. Yet many are located adjacent to other areas of open space (Perivale Golf Club in Ealing, for example, is part of a wider area of green space which includes sports pitches and two other golf courses hugging the banks of the River Brent). Arguably a distinction between open and “built up” space is of little value if nobody is around to appreciate it.
Criteria two requires MOL to provide leisure or sport facilities which serve “either the whole or significant parts of London”. One might wonder how a golf course fulfils this objective when the maximum number of people who can access it (never mind the cost of playing: many club membership fees exceed £1,000 per annum) is so limited.
The third criteria for MOL designation is that the space must include features or landscapes of national or metropolitan value. Few golf courses fulfil this requirement: some fall within Conservation Areas and others feature listed structures (the club houses at Old Ford and Hadley Wood Golf Clubs, for instance), but there are very few courses which are listed in their entirety. Stockley Park Golf Club in Hillingdon is one of the few examples of courses which benefit from this protection, and in this case simply because of its proximity to the business park which was Grade II listed only in August 2020, and not because of any heritage characteristics of the course itself.
The final criteria is that MOL must form part of a “green chain” or a link in the network of green infrastructure as well as meeting one of the above criteria. The inaccessibility of golf courses to most Londoners put paid to any notion that golf courses “promote healthier living, providing spaces for physical activity and relaxation”, however, it could be argued that they offer some environmental benefits.
By and large, it’s dubious whether most golf courses can really be said to fulfil the four criteria of MOL set out in the London Plan, and perhaps this is an opportunity to examine whether the time has come to remove the protection this offers.
The Social Value of Golf Courses
Most club rules state that no more than four players can occupy a hole at any one time. That equates to a maximum peak capacity of 6,900 individual golfers across London at any one time, although the likely number of simultaneous players is likely to be considerably less than this (all 18 holes will not be in use at the beginning of the playing day, and with limited daylight during winter months the playing window narrows considerably).
Therefore, assuming a course is at maximum capacity, this results in a total theoretical player density of 0.63 people per hectare.
In most cases, the maximum number of players playing each hole is four. So, for an 18-hole course the maximum density of people playing at any one time can be no more than 72. An 18-hole round of golf typically takes four hours to complete. During a typical summer day (8am to 8pm) that equates to a maximum number of 216 players per course.
On this basis, if Regent’s Park in central London were to become a golf course, at 166 hectares it could only be used by 105 people at the same time – or 314 people per day.
Visitor number for London’s parks are quite difficult to obtain, but August 2007 Regent’s Park actually had 809,039 visitors; or just over 26,000 visitors each day. Note that these figures are comparing the maximum daily occupancy of the average golf course with the average daily number of park visitors; the likely ratio between the two is significantly greater on popular days such as weekends and bank holidays.
It is, perhaps, unfair to compare a central London park – which is in close proximity to many residents – to a golf course, which tend to be located within the outer London boroughs.
Greenwich Park has an area of approximately 74 hectares. In August 2007 it had 560,515 visitors, equating to around 18,000 each day. That’s over 83 times the maximum capacity of Dulwich & Sydenham Hill Golf Course, which is a similar distance from the centre of London. Reducing the area of the golf course to achieve the same density of use as Greenwich Park would mean its 33 hectare area shrinking to 400 square metres – approximately one-and-a-half tennis courts.
All in all, with 1,684 holes, the total daily capacity of London’s golf courses is no more than 20,208 people: only two thousand more than the daily capacity of Greenwich Park alone. The actual figure will be far lower: this assumes a perfect summer’s day, with the holes full to capacity for the full duration of daylight hours, on every day of the week.
The demographics of golf course use suggest, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they are enjoyed predominantly by older men. Typically, three quarters of club membership tends to be men, and 80% are over 40. That’s compared to a median age of 35.6 in London.
Based on these figures, it’s hard to see a significant benefit to the physical and mental wellbeing of London’s citizens when so few can use these spaces at any one time. Perhaps in recognition of the limited social utility of its only golf course, Lewisham Council took the decision to convert Beckenham Place Park into a public park in 2017.
A Better Use of Land?
Many of London’s golf courses are located well away from areas of high population density, and perhaps don’t lend themselves to alternative uses.
However, a surprising number are located in highly accessible areas: close to public transport or high streets. Helpfully, the new London Plan provides a useful method of assessing geographic areas for their accessibility to important infrastructure: the H2 Small Sites policy of the plan defines such areas as being appropriate for “incremental intensification”. While this policy is specifically targeted at small sites (ie. those with a total area below 0.25 hectares), it provides a useful tool for establishing suitability for new housing.
60% of London falls within this zone, although large parts of outer London, being generally further from public transport, does not (only a third of Havering meets this definition, for example). Yet fully 1,420 hectares of all London’s golf courses—and 565 hectares of publicly-owned ones—have been determined as suitable for “incremental intensification” by the Mayor of London. (It should be noted that the Mayor has strong feelings about the loss of green space in London, and that his draft London Plan placed even stronger restrictions on development on green belt and MOL which were loosened slightly at the direction of the Secretary of State during the adoption process).
So if we were, in one fell swoop, to build across all of the publicly-owned golf courses that fall within the Policy H2 zone, how many homes might we provide?
The existing density of outer London is pretty low, with most of the suburban boroughs hovering around the 25-30 dwellings per hectare mark. That’s around half that of the inner-London boroughs, although a handful exceed 70 homes per hectare. However, it seems pretty clear that we should be targeting higher levels of density for new development in most areas – and certainly those in accessible locations – if we are to have any chance of meeting London’s housing needs.
Therefore, using a (still relatively modest) target density of 60 homes per hectare, if we were able to convert all those areas of public golf courses falling within the H2 zone, London might deliver 33,900 new homes. Based on an approximate average occupation level of 3 people per household, that equates to 101,700 people.
To put this in different terms, the same area occupied by a single golfer could provide a home for around 380 people.
As of March 2019, there were 178,023 people living in temporary accommodation. By reducing London’s public golf courses by just 220 holes (13% of the total), we could reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation by 57%. This would still leave 1,473 holes available across the city for those Londoners who still feel the need to spoil a good walk.
A Good Walk Spoiled
It seems clear that golf courses ability to meet the four criteria of MOL designation is tenuous at best. The strongest defence for their inclusion is physical distinctiveness from, and their biodiversity contribution to, an urbanising city.
Yet as our case study has demonstrated, careful and selective development – providing housing a social infrastructure in sustainable locations – can not only maintain a clear visual separation between built-up areas and open land, but also improve the quality of the green space that remains; not only in is diversity of species, tree cover and opportunities for urban agriculture and food production, but also in its accessibility to ordinary Londoners.
Perhaps now is the time for a rational discussion about whether golf courses still represent an optimal use of land and whether the councils which own them should consider putting them to a more appropriate use?
4 September 2021 – Added text and map showing the 74 gol courses which sit within 5km of Greater London’s boundary.
30 August 2021 – Section added showing types of green space in London, using Ordnance Survey Green Space dataset.
29 August 2021 – Link to Guy Shrubsole‘s research included in the section about ownership.