Who owns London’s golf courses?

Image: Beckenham Place Park, a former golf course turned into a public park by its owner, Lewisham Council. This blogpost is by Guy Shrubsole.

Half the golf courses in Greater London are owned by councils or the Crown Estate, a new investigation by Who Owns England can reveal. The findings add further impetus to growing calls for golf courses and other private green spaces to be opened up to the public during the coronavirus crisis, so that there is more space to safely exercise in.

There are 131 golf courses within Greater London covering 11,000 acres, according to Ordnance Survey’s Greenspace dataset – the second largest category of green space in the city after parks and public gardens (26,800 acres). Using the Land Registry’s Corporate & Commercial dataset, I’ve uncovered the ownership of London’s golf courses, and found that 49% by area are owned by councils (4,702 acres) and the Crown Estate (853 acres), with the remainder in the hands of private golf clubs and other companies.

The fact that so many golf courses are already municipally owned begs the question – why can’t local authorities open these up to allow people to exercise in, rather than letting existing parks get overcrowded (or worse still, closing parks)?

GLA golf vs parks

Golf courses (red) vs existing public parks & gardens (green) in Greater London.

Growing calls to open up private green spaces

The coronavirus crisis has rightly led to strict impositions on what people can do, with social distancing essential to stop the spread of the virus. Within these limits, the Government’s guidance is clear: “exercise is still important for people’s physical and mental wellbeing” during coronavirus, so long as social distancing is maintained. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty says being outside in a park is a “very good thing to do”.

In the wake of Lambeth Council opting to close Brockwell Park, citing overcrowding, various commentators have suggested opening up currently private green spaces instead so that existing parks won’t get so full. Journalist Rosamund Urwin was the first to tweet a suggestion to open up golf courses, and she’s followed this with a piece in the Sunday Times (£). Oliver Smith at the Telegraph has also backed the idea. Patrick Barkham has proposed the government create a new swathe of parks post-coronavirus. I’ve started a petition urging the Government to open up golf courses to the public, which at the time of writing has had over 5,000 signatures; please sign and share it!

Most encouragingly of all, Professor Susan Michie, of the government’s scientific advisory group on coronavirus, has told the Observer that private green spaces ‘should be officially commandeered by the state to ensure everyone can exercise safely while maintaining social distancing’.

In short, a public debate has begun about the best use of land in our cities, and the value people place on access to nature and green spaces. This is particularly pertinent given coronavirus – but is also something that has needed saying for a very long time. The lockdown has highlighted how access to nature is a fundamental human need – there’s mountains of evidence on the physical and mental health benefits of getting outdoors – and the fact that this is a matter of social justice: people in deprived areas have smaller gardens and less access to green space.

In the context of this emerging debate, let’s take a look at who owns London’s golf courses, and whether they could be readily persuaded to open up to a wider public.

The owners of London’s golf courses: from Harrow to Imperial Tobacco

To uncover who owns London’s golf courses, I took Ordnance Survey’s Greenspace dataset, extracted just golf courses, clipped this with the GLA boundary, cleaned up a couple of errors in the dataset where polygons overlapped, and measured the area of each course. I then cross-checked the resulting 131 golf courses against Land Registry’s Corporate & Commercial dataset to uncover the owners. The full results are in this Google Spreadsheet.

Here’s the headline findings:

Golf course owners in Greater London Acres Percent
Corporate / private 5,122 45%
Councils 4,702 42%
Crown Estate 853 8%
Split 50/50 council & private owner 363 3%
Unknown ownership: 270 2%
Total 11,310 acres 100%

Whilst most of the corporate owners are simply fee-paying golf clubs, there are also some intriguing names, including:

  • Harrow School;
  • Dulwich College, who have commendably already opened up their sports fields for the public;
  • Imperial Tobacco’s pension fund, owners of Selsdon Park golf course (who knew Big Tobacco cared about outdoor exercise?);
  • and Du Parcq (Jersey) Ltd, owners of Brockley Hill Golf Park, registered in the offshore tax haven of Jersey.

The Crown Estate own golf courses at Hampton Court, Richmond Park, and Eltham, amongst others.

But to me the most interesting owners are the councils. Hillingdon, Enfield and Barnet are the top three London councils who own the most acres of golf course. And Bexley, Brent, Bromley, the City of London Corporation, Croydon, Ealing, Harrow, Havering, Hounslow, Kingston, Lee Valley, Lewisham, Redbridge, Richmond, Sutton, Waltham Forest – together they own thousands of acres of golf courses. They could all be opening this up immediately, if they chose to, to create more space for safer exercise. So why don’t they?

If you’d like to see this change, please sign and share my petition!

23 thoughts on “Who owns London’s golf courses?

  1. This is a very valid exercise. A quick look at Wikipedia and there must be some 3000 golf clubs in the UK. At approximately 100 acres a shot, that is some 300,000 acres of land – about half of the area owned by the National Trust and close to the total area of National Nature Reserves in the UK.

  2. Good luck with the campaign and Beckenham Place Park looks really inspiring as a way forward during this crisis and long afterwards. Is golfing banned or permitted at the moment? If the latter, one compromise with the golfers might be to say you can keep 9 holes to play on, and people & nature can have the other 9.

    One issue is that the shortage of outdoor green space is most acute in inner London, whereas the golf courses are in outer London. At the moment as I understand it (as an inner London zone 2 resident) we are not supposed to drive (or take bus or tube) out to do our daily exercise, we are meant to take it within walking distance of our own homes. At the moment it would be good to have a one way system on the pavements for walkers (one direction each side of the road) and close the roads to cars so joggers can run in the road more safely. This would also tame the boy racers. So as well as opening up their golf courses councils could do schemes on their streets too.

  3. I live near Beckenham Palace Park and have to say there are plenty of green spaces around here already. We have a small park opposite where I live which is rarely used by any one. I suspect that is true with many of the areas with golf courses which will tend to be on leafy outer London.
    The house in Beckenham Palace Park is still a bit of a dump and could do with being smartened up. The cafe could certainly be improved.

    1. I walk a lot in Beckenham Place Park and all around it – and it’s heavenly! The fact that there are other adjoining smaller green places, or close-by, means that the whole area can be compared to sites such as Hampstead Heath in North London or Richmond Park in West London, both for human enjoyment and wildlife – birds, insects, foxes, etc. There is nothing else comparable in South East London so it must all be preserved! There are plans to improve the area on the other side of the railway line and I hope this is done for the benefit of nature (more unmowed areas, more trees and ponds, etc) as well as visitors.

  4. As a golfer myself, a couple of thoughts:

    1. The vast majority of golf clubs are open to all and actively seek young players by setting up academies. Most clubs also have senior sections to encourage the more mature of us to get out regularly. There are a few elite clubs that have exclusive membership, but these are few and far between. So, generally it’s an activity open to everyone.

    2. I have found also that the majority of courses manage the natural environment very well, providing havens for a wide range of wildlife. I see birds on golf courses that I would never see usually – red kites, woodpeckers. Some courses like Hampton Court have deer wandering across the course. Whilst other like Royal North Devon and Bramshaw still have sheep and other livestock across the course.

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