The decline of municipal golf clubs during the economic downturn
Nigel Harte looks at the problems municipal golf clubs have faced, especially in the last two years, as local councils look to cut costs
In the analysis that followed the death of Margaret Thatcher in April, much was talked about to what extent the world has changed since the 1980s. Yet, while the rise in telecommunications technology and the fall of Communism may have had a bigger impact on our lives, the transformation of municipal golf courses in the last 30 years has also been a seismic shift worthy of its own write-up.
Council-owned golf courses were, for much of the 20th century, second only to private members’ golf clubs in terms of their use by the general populace. As the general manager of Saddleworth Golf Club, Alastair Griffiths, said: “Local authority golf courses were where you learnt the art. They thrived. Councils even made profits for the local ratepayers from the amenities. Hundreds of thousands of golfers played the council courses week in, week out, often starting out as early as 5am to get near the front of the queue on the tee.”
But this all changed. In the 1990s golf course construction boomed, waiting lists at private members’ clubs dwindled and the proprietary sector started to rise. By the start of this century municipal golf courses began to stop making profits. And when the economic downturn came about, councils were forced to make budget cuts – with now loss-making golf clubs being the first in the firing line.
“Overall membership of municipal courses is falling,” said Eddie Mitchell, secretary of the National Association of Public Golf Courses, in late 2011.
“They are losing money. Fifteen years ago golf was a golden goose for the councils. Now not only is there the decline but in some cases it is substantial.”
Just days after those comments were made, Roseberry Grange, which had been earmarked for closure by Durham County Council, was saved when the authority agreed to effectively rent it out to its members for 35 years, with minimal payments due for the first five years to give the club an opportunity to stop making a loss. The only stipulation was that the club was to be rebranded as a community club. At the same time, Sunderland City Council agreed an almost identical deal with Elemore Golf Club – after it withdrew £75,000 of funding that the club needed to stay afloat.
A few days later, Parc Garnant, which was built at a cost of £1 million in 1992 on an opencase mine and was named best new course of the year in 2004 by the Golf Union of Wales, was handed over to Clay’s Golf in Wrexham with a 25-year lease. The Carmarthenshire club was costing its county council £150,000 per year to run.
The opposition on Carmarthenshire Council, Plaid Cymru, attacked the controlling party, Labour, for agreeing to pay Clay’s Golf £160,000 as part of the deal, but Labour stated that the 26 companies interested in buying Parc Garnant were whittled down to two when they saw the costs involved – and those two still refused to take on the club without a grant. However, the secretary of nearby Glynhir Golf Club, Robert Edwards, said the arrangement meant he was effectively subsidising his own club’s competitor.
Also in late 2011, Bowring Golf Club, the second oldest municipal golf course in England, was given to Mack Golf to run, by Knowsley Council, under a 20-year lease. The 100-year-old club had seen its membership drop to less than 70.
Not all municipal clubs were saved at the end of 2011 though. Appley Park in the Isle of Wight was converted into a park after the local council failed to find an operator to run it.
By early 2012, things were showing little signs of improvement. Oadby Golf Course in Leicestershire closed when its local council said it couldn’t afford to cover its losses anymore. In fact, when it emerged that the club had made a shortfall of £533,000 over the previous seven years, a Conservative councillor called on the Liberal Democrat leader of Oadby and Wigston Borough Council to resign.
April 2012 saw arguably the biggest story in recent municipal golf history. Birmingham City Council saved all seven of its courses, which were all in danger of going under, by awarding social enterprise firm Mytime Active a 50-year contract to manage them.
“We have not only safeguarded public golf for future generations, we have transformed a service that was running at a loss into one set for significant investment,” said council spokesman Martin Mullaney.
Last summer Whitwood Golf Course had its future secured by 100 of its members and Groundwork Wakefield, an environmental trust, which both agreed to run the venue, after Wakefield Council announced it would remove the £87,000 used to subsidise the facility.
Also last year, Blackwell Grange Golf Club, a private members’ club, agreed to buy Stressholme Golf Centre, a municipal course in Darlington that made a loss of nearly £150,000 in 2011, in order to move to its facility and sell its existing course to a housing developer. “We want to protect golf and support a sustainable pattern of golf facilities in Darlington, without the need for ongoing subsidies from the local authority,” said Ada Burns, chief executive of Darlington Borough Council.
Since the start of this year, difficulties have continued.
Leeds City Council recommended shutting Middleton Park and Gotts Park golf clubs, which both make losses, in order to cut costs, but agreed to give both clubs a 12-month reprieve in order to work out a plan to reduce losses.
At the same time, Liverpool City Council has said its two golf venues, which represent four golf clubs, would save the authority £300,000 if they were shut down.
Allerton Golf Course, which is home to Allerton, Dudley and Allerton Ladies golf clubs, and Liverpool North (Kirkby) Golf Course, all run at a loss. Reports suggest the courses have until next April to reduce these shortfalls.
One of the biggest shocks to the municipal sector came in February, when Jack Barker Golf Company, which operated several golf courses on behalf of local authorities, entered liquidation.
It meant that Tamworth Golf Course closed down and Keele Golf Course made several members of staff redundant. However, a few weeks later Tamworth Borough Council agreed to re-open and run its course for two years while looking for a buyer, and Keele’s authority, Newcastle Borough Council, has said it will keep the golf course open until it sells it as well.
Goldenhill Golf Club in Stoke, another former Jack Barker venue, has been closed down however.
Finally, Tynedale Golf Club, a 105-year-old venue – and the oldest municipal golf club in England, was also on the verge of closing when Northumberland County Council said it would cut £26,000 of vital funding to it. However, in the last few weeks the club agreed a deal with two county councillors who control local budgets and a former town mayor regarding the purchase of course machinery.
“Out of all the doom and gloom, we have emerged more healthy and stronger than ever,” said Tynedale’s secretary, Alan Nelson.
As the above stories show, local authority golf has been devastated by budget cuts to councils. However, very few have closed down and, with a commercial attitude and an ability to attract non-traditional golfers, such as women and children, to their venues, many facilities could be echoing Alan Nelson’s comments.