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3 September 2021

Golf’s stranglehold on land in London should be broken

The capital’s golf courses cover an area larger than Brent and could provide homes for over 300,000 people.

By Jonn Elledge

Imagine there was a relatively popular but nonetheless minority leisure activity that involved competitively screaming at the top of your lungs to relieve frustration. (Lord knows there have been days when I have imagined little else.) There’d be a miniature indoor iteration of this sport, complete with padded rooms, but the true aficionados would prefer the full-scale outdoor version. This would, for obvious reasons, require a lot of space.

Imagine this seemed a perfectly natural part of life, until one day you discovered that – in the middle of a housing crisis – London had set aside an area slightly bigger than the capital’s borough of Brent for no other purpose than screaming.

How would you feel about that? In light of those feelings, why exactly are we putting up with the hilariously wasteful sport of golf?

The first thing to say about golf is: it is not an elite sport. You may imagine the average golfer to be a well-heeled man of a certain age, but actually golfers come from all ages and social classes. (I’ve no idea if this is true, but it’s what golfers tell me every time I tweet about golf, so let us be generous.)

What I can tell you, though, is that the vast majority of golfers – upwards of 80 per cent of them – are men, and that the number of people who play is something around the 900,000 mark. That is something like 1.3 per cent of the population, or 0.5 per cent of the female population. By contrast, the percentage of the population that cite video games as a hobby is around 30 per cent. Golf is a distinctly minority interest.

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There is nothing wrong with minority interests: what you do on your own time is entirely up to you. The problem with golf is its impact on the approximately 98.7 per cent of the population who don’t play.

Land, after all, is a limited resource, and golf takes up a lot of it. According to “The Golf Belt”, a recent report put together by the architect Russell Curtis, a single hole on a golf course generally occupies around 2.5 hectares – a space that could easily fit 100 homes – and the average 18-hole course is around 46ha. To put those figures in context, Green Park in London is around 19ha, and St James’s around 23ha. The entire Canary Wharf estate is only 39ha; in other words, an area home to several dozen towers and 16 million square feet of office space is substantially smaller than an 18-holer.

And that is just one course. London currently contains 94 of them, their total land area coming to 4,331ha. That is, an area larger than 18 London boroughs is given over to a sport played by a tiny fraction of the population and unavailable for any other use. There are seven courses in the London Borough of Enfield alone.

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There are other ways to visualise quite how wasteful this use of land is. Most club rules state that no more than four players can occupy a hole at any one time, Curtis’s report notes. That means if every course in London was fully occupied at once they would have a capacity of just 6,900 golfers. The 2.8 per cent of London given over to golf may not sound like much, but if every Londoner decided simultaneously that they fancied a round, less than 0.08 per cent of them would be able to play.

None of the other arguments sometimes rolled out in favour of the golf belt stack up either. Golf courses do not provide Londoners with valuable open space, because there are very good reasons you shouldn’t walk your dog on the fairway. Golf courses do not provide the environment with much-needed biodiversity, because by definition large chunks of golf courses require keeping wild plants to a minimum. Golf courses do not provide us with much-needed agricultural produce, because you can’t eat golf balls. The only arguments I can find in favour of giving over so much land to golf are that a) we should not interfere in the market, and b) it is illiberal to tell people how they should use their leisure time.

Well: the planning system interferes with the market all the time. That is what it is for. And governments tell people how to spend their leisure time all the time. If my love of badly made TV sci-fi was damaging millions of people’s quality of life, I have no doubt you’d want the state to get involved in that too.

Land in London is scarce. The land given over to golf is land that cannot be used for parks, or nature, or homes.

But it could be. Curtis has calculated that 1,432ha of London’s golf courses – almost exactly a third of the total – lies in the “H2” zone identified by Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Plan as areas, by stations or other transport hubs, ideal for development. At fairly average densities, this could provide nearly 86,000 homes for over 300,000 people. After years of housing crisis – isn’t that at least worth talking about?

[See also: Will anything ever stop the madness of the British housing market?]