A fair way? Do we prioritise golf or homes?

Here’s something that might surprise you.

We use as much land for golf courses in England as we do for homes.

There are around 2000 full sized golf courses in England (141 in Surrey alone), with hundreds more smaller courses and driving ranges, according to Colin Wiles on the Inside Housing blog. He calculates that the overall footprint of just the full sized courses is 150,000 hectares or 1.1% of England’s 13.4m hectares. According to a comprehensive government assessment in 2011, that’s the same amount of land in England used for homes.*

Google maps and “golf course”

Colin argues that when you add in smaller courses and driving ranges, the full ‘golf footprint’ is more than twice as large as the space used for homes.

When we are suffering from a major housing shortage – a deficit which is growing by over 100,000 homes each and every year – you would have thought that it would be better known that we use just as much land for golf.

However there is still a view from some that the country is ‘full’ and there is no possibility of solving the housing shortage. In fairness, this is probably because most of us spend most of our time on the small percentage of land that is built upon. Perception trumps reality. However, when we are able to allocate so much land to hitting a small white ball into a hole, you’d have thought we could also allocate enough of it for the next generation to have a home of their own.

This is not to say we need to build over any golf course in the country, or have anything against golf. Just that we could find the land for homes if we really wanted to. With 80,000 children homeless this Christmas in Britain, this is a debate that needs to happen.

We must recognise the need for more homes as well as the need for amenities, infrastructure, the protection of natural beauty – and golf courses.

We urgently need to start thinking about how more land could be made available for home building in areas with growth and jobs, and about how to capture the uplift in the value of that land when it is allocated for homes in order to pay for infrastructure. Land supply is absolutely crucial to the debate on housing, and better ways of ensuring that there are places to build homes must be on the agenda for reform.

An excellent Joseph Rowntree funded study earlier in the year set out some of the ways other countries manage to bring new land for homes into the system in a way that ensure the homes are affordable and infrastructure is provided. Along with KPMG and others, we are now looking at ways in which this might work in England.

Golf is not the answer to the housing shortage, but it does show that we shouldn’t despair. There is space to house the next generation, let’s get on with it.


*Data on homes is from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment by Defra. Around 10% of land in England is classified as urban, but the majority of this is gardens, parks, roads, lakes and rivers. 2.27% of land in England is built upon while 1.1% is domestic buildings.

For golf, Colin uses the figure of 2,700 courses in the UK scaled to England. The average size of playing area is 30-40 hectares with the average full size of a course (including space between fairways) adding another 30-40 hectares. Colin therefore assumes 75 hectares per course multiplied by 2000 courses which is 150,000 ha, or 1.1% of England’s 13.4m hectares.

  1. “We use as much land for golf courses in England as we do for homes.” That’s a startling fact, got my attention (on Twitter) very effectively.

  2. I support the notion that we have plenty of land to build on, without necessarily infringing on the green belt.

    However, the way this article quotes statistics is disgustingly misleading.

    10% of land in England is urban; the 1.1% figure should not be quoted, as it excludes gardens, parks, roads, lakes and rivers; as well as other local municipal and commercial areas.

    Shelter claims that you can build homes with no gardens, parks or public infrastructure what-so-ever.

    Maybe that’s why Shelter doesn’t build or house people itself with all it’s fundraising activity and call centres taking priority over, you know, providing people with Shelter.

    1. Not at all Rayhan, we don’t claim you can or should build homes in isolation. We clearly need parks, gardens and infrastructure with our new homes.

      What this statistic highlights though is that if we already provide as much land for playing golf as the area taken up by houses and flats, then we have room to grow. It’s taking on the commonly held view that there is no more space, which you rightly say is incorrect.

      1. It’s the emotive use of golf courses that is the issue. Clearly there is plenty of land to build on in the UK – 90% is unbuilt but we choose to have green belt and farms.

        I’m no golfer but it isn’t as if golf courses are taking up room in middle of cities. There aren’t golf courses in central London (tho plenty of parks).

        1. What do you mean by central? SW17? (Central London Golf Centre).

          1. At six miles from Charing Cross I don’t think that quite fits my definition of central London.

            Expanding my point, I was highlighting that the 40 or so golf courses in Surrey alone are on land that would otherwise have to be kept as farm land or just fields. No one economically rational is going to build a golf course when he could build a housing estate.

            So it isn’t as if golf courses are preventing houses from being built, they are built instead of farm land or empty fields.

  3. According to council tax statistics from late 2012, there were over 250,000 long-term (i.e. over 6 months) empty homes in England alone. That’s 3 times as many as the 80,000 homeless figure quoted above and demonstrates that just building homes is not the answer to the problem…

    The problem is uncontrolled rental prices…Do we need to make rent/houses more affordable in the areas where these empty homes lie? Yes! With the rent I currently pay in London, I could have a 3 bedroom house with a garden in Sheffield (where I previously lived). If there’s no control over what people are charged, there will always be a shortage of affordable housing.

  4. I implore you not to peddle this divisive argument further than it needs to (i.e. in the bin). This is completely misleading data as infrastructure is excluded. You simply cannot compare the two figures.

    I ask you to remove this article and focus on the real cause. House building companies that are sitting on enough land to build enough houses for some time to come and force control of empty housing stocks, and there’s no reason to turn people against valuable open spaces that are often built on landfill that isn’t suited to house building anyway.

    Please use facts not emotive fiction!

    1. To add to how the data is compiled. If infrastructure is excluded then so should fairways and space between the fairways on golf courses leaving just the tee and green. I think you’ll find that a much more appropriate comparison!

      1. No fairways and no space between fairways = no golf course!

  5. Using golf courses is a good headline grabbing statistic since it’s seen as a past time of the wealthy (although perhaps less so here in Scotland where a greater proportion are Council owned).

    However if we’re going to talk about the use of private land it’s worth pointing out that the Prince Charles and the Dukes of Westminster and Northumberland own almost 400,000 hectares between them (around 130,000 hectares each). That’s three individuals that could individually accommodate nearly all of England’s housing.

    Now you could argue that much of that is already urbanised (particularly in the Duke of Westminster’s case) or that most of it is in areas that are not where the housing is needed, but then that 2nd argument could also be said of golf courses.

  6. Your figures are wrong. There is an average UK housing density of 43 homes per hectare. The alleged 150,000 hectares of golf courses would therefore accommodate 6,300,000 homes. There are approximately 25 million households in the UK. Therefore, simple arithmetic should tell you that you simply haven’t got as much land used for golf course as housing.

    You know the old saying about assumptions don’t you?

    1. I suspect the average density is considerably higher once you exclude the Scottish wilderness – you’ll note the article says “England” rather than the entire UK.

  7. Headline grabbing is fine, but this one is misleading and readers will infer that golf courses should be dug up and replaced with houses. I know the article doesn’t say this, but …
    Many golf courses are built on links land for the very good reason that they cannot be used for anything else, such as agriculture or housing. Others are built in remote areas without good access and little chance of substantial infrastructural provision.
    We should argue that there is housing land available, for example, brownfield sites and other derelict areas.
    Using the golf course comparison in this way is almost invidious and doesn’t help the basic message that land MUST be found for housing. Quite apart from the very dodgy and probably inaccurate accounting methodology in the use of statistics, it is almost certainly not true that the same amount of land is occupied by golf courses as domestic housing. The space accorded to golf courses is crudely accounted, and I find it hard to believe that the DEFRA figure is accurate either.
    It doesn’t take us anywhere useful. Good effort, but must try harder!

  8. Get over yourselves, you big babies. Golf courses represent the most efficient use of sport-for-leisure land there is. The reason we cram housing into as a tiny a space as possible is because the land in this country is all nominally “owned” by the same families who’ve owned it since 1066. Bit by bit, they sell it off at massive profits. If we all owned the land in common and leased it for housing at sensible rates, the people of this country wouldn’t be spending billions on having a place to live – and who gets those billions? The already massively wealthy. The whole British housing market is a massive, despicable ponzi scheme.

    Golf is not to blame for it. If this were a more equal country there’d be way more golf courses, not less, because golf is a beautiful game that people of all ages and abilities can enjoy. It may be true that many of the older generation of golfers are irritating snotty twerps of the bufton tufton Major Bonkers variety. But let’s not be socially stigmatising it. Golf is supremely egalitarian. The guy who gets the ball in the hole with the least shots wins. As no doubt people like Lee Trevino or Angel Cabrera would be happy to explain to you. Both started out dirt poor and rose to become golfing greats.

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