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Golf and the Green Belt: A Plan Fore the Birdies

“The most important shot in golf is the next one."

Ben Hogan (World Golf Hall of Famer 1974)

The use of the Green Belt for public leisure and the impression that it comprises beautiful rolling countryside results in much public support for it. However, this designation is not to provide public access, neither is it there to protect areas of landscape value. Rather, in essence, the Green Belt is a strategic designation to primarily promote urban regeneration and stop the merging of large settlements, together with their unplanned sprawl.

Now some members of our team love to play golf, shouting ‘Fore’, shooting six and writing down five on their score cards ( Our director is more crazy). Nevertheless, golf is in decline. Less and less of the younger generation are taking up the sport and playing regularly and golf membership on the whole is on the way down. There are lots of reasons for this, not least the competing demands for how people spend their leisure time.

So, we now have a situation where golf courses cover a significant proportion of restricted Green Belt land, but interest in these facilities is tailing off. On the current trajectory, half of the courses in the Green Belt will soon be unnecessary. Herein lies the opportunity.

A proportion of the redundant courses are likely to be in accessible areas, close to services and facilities. Residential development could therefore be provided here to ease housing pressures. That said, even the courses that are not in accessible locations, that would not be particularly suitable for housing, present biodiversity opportunities. In simple terms, such courses could be the subject of re-wilding/recreational projects, providing benefits in terms of carbon capture, air quality and water storage. This has the potential to at least double the amount of land used as Local Nature Reserves in the Green Belt.

Additionally, the Environment Act will import a deemed condition into most planning permissions stating that development may not be begun unless a Biodiversity Gain Plan (BGP) has been submitted to and approved by the local planning authority. The objective of the BGP is to set out how biodiversity net gain will be delivered during, and as a result of, the proposed development. The object is to ensure that a net gain of at least 10% is achieved in the “post-development” situation. Redundant golf courses in the Green Belt will therefore present a rare opportunity to achieve requisite biodiversity net gains and remove this inevitable stumbling block for development.

Lastly, there are many wildlife sites in and around the Green Belt that are protected by European law. Some of these are in environmental decline due to visitors (through recreational pressures and nitrogen deposition from car exhausts) or from nutrient imbalances which harm aquatic wildlife. In such circumstances, local planning authorities often have no choice but to place a moratorium on all housing development.

To combat this, the golf courses in the Green Belt could be redeveloped as Suitable Alternative Natural Green Spaces, providing recreational facilities for the public that take the pressure off existing European wildlife sites. Moreover, by taking land out of its current golf course use, there would be the removal of the use of many pesticides and fertilisers which wash into watercourses. As such, this type of redevelopment could even be used to increase ‘nutrient credits’ in an area, ensuring that development can proceed without resulting in chemical imbalances for aquatic wildlife.

Overall, there is more than enough land currently used for golf courses within the Green Belt to tackle both housing and wildlife issues. Why not use this spatial designation to provide the greatest single increase in land for public recreation in our lifetimes, while at the same time boosting housing delivery and protecting/enhancing biodiversity. The next, and maybe most important, shot for golf in the Green Belt may very well be to manage the decline of the sport to foster sustainable social, economic and environmental development.


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