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February 29, 2024

England might have a shortage of homes – around 4 million too few by some estimates – but it has plenty of golf courses. England’s 1,872 golf courses, which occupy about 2% of the land area, is more than double the number to be found in second place Germany. More of Surrey – one of the most expensive housing markets in the country – is golf course than homes. Yet it is estimated that a typical course could be redeveloped for 1,500 new homes. As sports go, it isn’t very representative either: 47% of golf club members are aged over 60, while more than 75% of them are male.

There is, then, surely some logic in redeveloping some of those courses for new housing. But how easy is it to make that happen?

The implications of the golf course use for housing development

National planning policy provides specific protections against the re-development of sports facilities – including golf courses – for other uses. Paragraph 103 of the National Planning Policy Framework explains that sports facilities should not be built on unless:

• they are clearly surplus to requirements,

• there is new provision of at least equivalent quantity and quality, or

• the development of is for alternative sports and recreation provision.

Without one of those three requirements being satisfied, a planning application for new homes is likely to be refused. Recent appeal decisions to see how those requirements are being interpreted in practice.

Surplus to requirements

Demonstrating the course is surplus to requirements requires a “Golf Needs Assessment” to be carried out which shows there to be more courses available in the local area than are required to meet needs. However, appeal decisions draw a clear distinction between a site being genuinely “surplus” and there simply being other courses which can absorb the displaced demand.

Although financially viability is not explicitly mentioned in planning policy, that can form part of the case to show that the course is surplus to requirements. However, when presented with financial information, planning inspectors have been keen to interrogate the degree to which other ways of making the club financially sustainable have been pursued. The range of memberships, social media marketing efforts, and other ways of diversifying income streams have all been taken into account by planning inspectors.

Replacement facilities

Any replacement facilities would need to be a genuine replacement. A recent proposal for new homes on half a golf course in Widnes included improved clubhouse facilities at the re-modelled 9-hole course that would remain, as well as access to another nearby golf course where clubhouse improvements would also be funded. This approach did not satisfy the planning inspector, who noted that the lost holes were not being replaced, while the ability to use another course was “not new provision but an intensification of use of existing provision.”

Indeed, in most cases planning applications for the re-development of golf courses have been refused. Where permission has been granted, that is usually because the course had been closed for several years at the time of the application.

As so often, it is the planning system rather than developer appetite that is preventing new homes being delivered. On the face of it, it is possible for new homes to be built on golf courses – but the application of national planning policies makes it extremely difficult in practice. If you want to succeed, you need an application that is carefully constructed and supported by robust evidence.

Is there any unused land?

One way to make the challenge simpler is not to build on the golf course at all. Many courses have land around their edges which isn't needed for the course. In same cases, these areas can be quite substantial, and even let out for other uses. Focussing a planning application on parts of the course like that can help avoid any debate about the future of the course. In fact, it can even help secure the course's future by generating a capital receipt to be reinvested in improving or expanding the existing facilities, making the course more attractive to new members.

The team at The Strategic Land Group have experience of working on sports facilities of all types – not just golf courses. Like with all of our projects we take the risk, covering all the planning costs for you. Our fee only becomes payable once the site is sold with planning permission, so if we don’t succeed it doesn’t cost you anything. If you know of a site that might be suitable for development, get in touch today for a free, no obligation, consultation.

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