One person’s abandoned golf course is someone else’s development opportunity

Here’s an idea to tackle the urban housing crisis . Don’t dig up the green belt – dig up some greens.

Alastair Stewart

An increasingly time-constrained, cash-strapped and possibly politically correct public seems to be heeding Mark Twain’s well-worn adage that “golf is a good walk spoiled”. Golf club membership and financial support for the sport is on the slide.

Gold club membership fell 20% in England between 2004 and 2013, according to England Golf, while total participation in golf in the UK, including ‘nomadic golfers’, declined by 19% between 2006 and 2014.

Yet golf courses continue to occupy an inordinately large chunk of the UK. There are some 2,000 full-sized courses in England, along with hundreds of smaller courses, driving ranges and pitch and putts.

Based on the average golf course taking up 45 ha, the full-sized courses alone tot up to 90,000 ha, or almost 0.7% of England’s 13.4m ha land area. (Others put the figure at more than 1%, and there is debate among statisticians and housing lobbyists about whether or not courses take up more of Surrey than housing.)

Golf course

It’s something of a moot point. There appears to be a preponderance of courses in or close to green-belt areas, where housing demand is greater, and this totals 1.6m ha. Full-sized courses as a proportion of that equate to a more significant 5.6%.

Whenever there is a debate on housing there’s inevitably a focus on London. There are some 70-odd courses in Greater London, quite a few of them close to or cheek by jowl with rival clubs. Applying the same maths, that equates to 3,150 ha. Cut half of them, build at a reasonable density of, say, 50 units per ha, and that’s 78,750 new homes. The remaining clubs might start turning a profit. And green fees might go down.

Elitist sport

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a golf-basher, although adherents’ strange rituals and regalia smack of outdoor Freemasonry. But the development world is turning against golf, whereas once no upmarket housing development was complete without a neighbouring course.

In April, regeneration experts Chris Musgrave and Trevor Cartner teamed up with Stagecoach co-founder Ann Gloag to buy an abandoned golf course in Yorkshire from liquidators and turn it into a £200m town. Flaxby Golf Course spans 111 ha between Harrogate and York, on which the trio plans to build around 1,000 homes (a lower density than my suggestion) as well as a new school, shops and community facilities.

And in February, Mark Quinn, managing director of Quinn Estates, announced plans to turn the failed Herne Bay Golf Club into 572 homes, pitches for the local football, tennis, hockey and cricket clubs (all of which are capable of handling more participants per hour per square metre – and more healthily).

Golf ball

A tad unkindly, he told this magazine: “Golf is an elitist sport. If the course is used by only 140 members together paying only £70,000 a year, that doesn’t even pay for the upkeep of the green.”

Other developers are looking to follow suit, I’m told, not just with full courses, but also driving ranges and the like. They are no doubt taking their cue from the world’s epicentre of golf. In the US, the number of golf courses has declined every year for the past decade, a net shrinkage of 680, according to Forbes, presumably making way for housing developments.

It’s a development proposition made in heaven. Buying loss-making clubs could mean bargain prices.

Bulldozing golf courses has none of the decontamination costs associated with brownfield sites, the adverse economies of which successive government ministers have failed to grasp in their zeal to redevelop former industrial land.

Golf

There’s already something there, meaning less scope for Nimbies to protest to a change of use (unless they include Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck, in the case of Wentworth).

All that’s needed is for the government to introduce a fast-track planning route specifically for golf facilities.

Attractive landscaping would already largely be in place, with built-in water features and plenty of mature trees (any surplus to requirements could provide timber for some of the homes). Sustainability could be enhanced by recycling the contents of bunkers, which could be mixed into concrete.

As for the clubhouses, these could be converted to more profitable fitness clubs, with expensive fruit juices replacing gin-and-tonics in the ‘19th hole’. For developers at least, a case of ‘trebles all round’.

Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and commentator