New research suggests that there is enough space on London’s publicly owned golf courses to house 300,000 people. That number would go up considerably if we were to include the privately-owned courses in the capital, too, which make up more than half. For context, charity Crisis estimated in March this year that the number of people experiencing ‘core homelessness’—described as the most ‘immediate and severe’ forms of homelessness—in the entirety of England sat somewhere around the 200,000 mark.
The statistic comes from The Golf Belt, a study undertaken by architect Russell Curtis which also includes some other surprising figures. Over a quarter of Europe’s golf courses are situated in the UK. More than one in twenty of them are in London, a city in which 8.3 percent of households are overcrowded. Given that most courses rule that only four players can occupy a hole at any time, Curtis calculates the average density of London’s golf courses to be 0.63 people per hectare.
The argument underlying the study is that this local authority-owned space could perhaps be put to better sustainable use. Curtis is right: given that more than 700 council football pitches in Britain have been lost to austerity in the last ten years, and that football is vastly more popular than golf to both watch and play, the fact that so much public land remains dedicated to the latter—to a sport played by what Curtis says is a lonely one percent of the population—does seem a bit much. That’s particularly true when Curtis points out that golf courses don’t always mean big money: Enfield Golf Club reportedly leases the land from the council for £13,500 per annum, about equal to the annual rent in the same borough for a two-bedroom flat.
That’s not to say the private golf courses of the city are better. According to research by Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England?, the owners of London’s private golf courses include Harrow School, Dulwich College, Imperial Tobacco’s pension fund, and Du Parcq (Jersey) Limited, a company registered in its eponymous offshore tax haven. A good chunk of the rest are owned by the Crown Estate, a modest jewel in the actual crown of the world’s chief landowner. This is not a list of progressive icons.
Undemocratic land use is, of course, only one basis on which socialists are critical of the game. Golf has a longstanding association with a conservative politics literally predicated on exclusion: in the US, particularly, golfing institutions have been caricatured for decades for their historical ties to a kind of urbane racism and upper-class snobbery. Plenty of films and TV shows have made comedy out of a younger, junior employee attempting to ingratiate himself on the green, known inherently to be the territory of the boss.
The sport is still dominated by the white, the middle-aged, the upper/middle-class, and the male, and worldwide it remains a medium through which those white, middle-aged, and upper- or middle-class men reaffirm their mutual interests: like plenty of forms of leisure, golf is a site of social reproduction. The elites who benefit know it, too: US economist Armen Alchian, a passionate golfer himself and a theorist of property rights, famously argued in the Wall Street Journal that golf is a metaphor for capitalism and rewards the same qualities. (In a way, he was right: both golf and capitalism are wasteful and only to be enjoyed if you have lots of money.)
You might point out that this is a product of what golf has come to represent, and not of the sport itself. Some have even attempted socialist ‘defences’ of golf on the basis that it’s enjoyed by some working-class communities in Australia and New Zealand. But that’s rarely the case in the US and Western Europe – and even its defenders admit that the time it takes to play a game (on average about four hours) means its accessibility to, for example, a working single mother, is typically limited regardless of financial cost. That, again, brings us back to the sport’s fundamentally inequitable distribution of resources – including land.
Unfortunately it’s not just a case of dispossessing golf clubs and building social housing on the land – not all the time, anyway. Curtis’ study acknowledges that the majority of London golf courses are on the capital’s outskirts, and the boroughs that face the most intense crowding, like Tower Hamlets and Islington, lie closer to the city’s centre. If we want to give people living space without removing them entirely from their communities, we should probably start with the 22,000 homes—including many luxury apartments—that even prior to the pandemic stood permanently empty, and then move on to making the rest of them affordable and building council houses – and abolish landlords, too.
Similarly, critics may ask why Tribune is undermining one of the few opportunities city-dwellers have to spend time outside in the open air; local activism is, after all, famously dedicated to the longevity of the green belt. Less than one percent of England’s population already owns half its land, and our ability to access that land is shrinking. Trespass is about to become a criminal act.
The obvious response to this is that golf courses do not provide or protect green space. They cut into it, turning it into a luxury to be enjoyed by the small proportion of the population able to afford a membership costing, on average, just under a grand per annum. (Golf fans will be at pains to point out that pay-per-play options are also available.)
During the first wave of Covid, figures like Professor Susan Michie called for a programme of government commandeering to turn golf courses and other private green spaces into opportunities for squeezed Londoners to exercise and play – particularly for the 21 percent of London’s households without gardens. Some did open, proving how easy it might be for our nation’s land to actually be employed in the service of the public, rather than reserved for a sport played by the literal one percent. Lewisham council even turned their golf course into a public park way back in 2017.
This is a model we should seek to emulate, whether that land is then used for housing, outdoor recreation, or other forms of public good. ‘This is not a war on golf,’ Curtis told the Guardian when interviewed on his research – but it should be.