13 December 2023

Home-in-one: Do golf courses hold the key to solving the UK’s housing crisis?

By Angus Lloyd-Skinner

England has too many golf courses and too few homes. A quarter of Europe’s courses can be found here, occupying around 648,000 acres, or 2% of England’s land area. Scattered around the country, developing underused golf facilities could unlock swathes of new housing in and near towns and cities.

Golf mania is over. As the middle class grew, a surge in popularity led to a wave of new golf courses in the 1990s, transforming the sport from a stuffy gentleman’s parlour room activity into a multi-million-pound business. But, its popularity has waned. Golfers are playing more sporadically, surrendering their costly membership fees for more flexible options, leaving golf courses with less stable revenue.

But these courses are prime land for development. In London, golf courses occupy more land than Brent and could provide 300,000 homes. Developers could build 1,500 homes on the average 100-acre golf course. Amid a housing crisis caused by a chronic undersupply of homes, where the average house price is eight times the average salary, we should look to this land to provide a fairway to a stable housing market.

Sadly, many sit on the green belt, so unlocking the land is more complex than launching a push to repurpose golf courses. However, the discussion is an opportunity to reform the protections around cities and towns to allow for new homes whilst protecting nature and guarding against urban sprawl.

One big idea is to redesignate long-standing golf courses on the green belt as brownfield land, earmarking the area as ‘previously developed’, allowing for development. For struggling golf course owners faced with high operating bills and a shrinking customer base, this would enable them to turn the land over for housing rather than continuing commercially unviable businesses.

Some owners will opt for housing developments like Herne Bay Golf Club did. The course is currently being converted into over 500 new homes – offering a mix of affordable housing, one and two bedroom flats, and family homes. Others might utilise the windfall profit to diversify their golf business to attract new players by developing only a small portion of the land. Wolverhampton’s 3 Hammers Golf Complex sold just five acres of land to build 34 apartments on, retaining a 20-acre course which attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

Even without development, struggling golf courses can become a more community-beneficial green space. Lewisham Council bought and redeveloped Beckenham Place Park Golf Course. The land now hosts wildlife habitats, exercise space, and the Cloud X music festival, an event designed to showcase independent artists.

Changing the rules to allow golf courses to change uses will require input from the sport’s governing body, England Golf. Golfers will want to protect the game. But there are too few players and not enough steady income to support almost 2,000 courses today. For golfing to thrive, it must adapt to modern trends and diversify – housing development is a great way to do this.

Conditions are needed to protect the sport and support communities. Working with England Golf, the Government could identify suitable golf land to unlock but only allow the ground to be broken in certain circumstances. Beyond demanding sufficient infrastructure, this could include requiring alternative sport and recreation facilities, approved by England Golf and Sport England, to help build healthy communities alongside new homes.

Urgent action is needed to build more homes. Our planning laws are overzealous in guarding against overdevelopment and urban sprawl, hindering growth and the standard of living. Designating golf courses as brownfield land isn’t a silver bullet or politically easy, but it would be a bold step toward tackling the housing crisis, which ministers must consider.

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Angus Lloyd-Skinner is Deputy Head of Events and Development at Onward.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.