Who is to blame for the municipal golf courses slump?
The chair of the National Association of Public Golf Courses has said it is clear who is to blame for the astonishing deterioration in municipal golf courses over the last few years.
Maureen Brooker has said the councils themselves were happy to take the income from their venues for years but failed to make sufficient investments in the facilities and often allowed them to be poorly managed.
Her comments come amid a new wave of dreadful news for council-owned golf clubs.
Municipal courses were a major element in the British golf industry for decades until recently, when several have been closed down or handed over to new owners.
The situation has continued to deteriorate this year and now another three municipal golf courses are in serious trouble.
The 104-year-old Western Park Golf Club, and Humberstone Heights Golf Club, both in Leicestershire, and Tamworth Golf Club in Staffordshire, are all set to close.
Leicester City Council subsidises Western Park and Humberstone Heights by £150,000 every year, meaning that the council is subsidising every round by up to £7 each. In a bid to save £90m the council is therefore openly discussing having both venues closed.
Leicester mayor Sir Peter Soulsby asked: “In these times is it a good use of public money?
“A lot of people are choosing to play at other golf courses in the city and county at a similar cost to the city council courses or sometimes at a cheaper rate.
“A typical sport centre in the city will have over 200,000 users every year.
“The two golf course get under 30,000 each, so it does mean that they are very much a minority and expensive provision per head.”
Meanwhile Tamworth is running at an estimated loss of £100,000 per year and will be subsidised to the tune of £142,000 this year.
Local councillor Danny Cook said: “We have thrown as much money at it as we can, but it hasn’t worked. I know of no other subsidy where an individual is subsidised so much.
“This council, in the current economic climate, with national austerity and 40 percent of our budget already cut, cannot continue to run a golf course at such a loss. It’s impossible.”
His colleague Steve Claymore added: “This is not a decision we wanted to take but without more people playing at the course, we just can’t support it. The golf course is simply something we cannot afford to keep.”
However, Maureen Brooker has said the problem stems from the councils themselves.
“Councils for many years reaped the benefit of good profits from municipal courses, but under-investment and the taking of these profits to put into council coffers brought many into decline,” she told the Leicester Mercury.
“Courses need to be maintained correctly to attract golfers and members, and the facilities need to be adequate and kept to a decent standard.
“No longer will a hut be tolerated as a clubhouse and a good course and a clean clubhouse will attract many golfers.”
Brooker added that the lack of investment in the courses has become an even greater issue because many councils have not professionally managed their venues either.
“Councils should look to employ a manager to run and maintain one of their best assets. It cannot be overseen by an amateur at the council, probably many miles away, with no training and no affinity to the sport or the course,” she said.
“These managers need to be given their budget and left to manage the course.
“Many private clubs are declining in membership because of the financial situation. Playing 15 times a year and paying in excess of £800 is no longer cost-effective for many people.
“However, playing 15 times per year at a good course at a reasonable cost for the green fee is possible for the non-club golfer. The market is there for the nomadic golfer.
“The municipal golf courses therefore, rather than being seen as a drain on limited funding, should be viewed in terms of the benefits to the wider community.
“We must not allow councils to close these courses when, with proper management and funding, they can and will produce a profit for the community, not only in monetary terms but also giving the population a place to enjoy sport.”
Members of the clubs earmarked for closure have echoed her comments.
Trish Norton of Tamworth Golf Club said: “The closure comes as no surprise as it appears that little effort has been made by the council to attract new members.
“Anyone with a business brain would know that to run a golf course you need a great deal of promotion, marketing, advertising and an excellent management structure to encourage players onto the course, thus creating cash flow and turnover – none of which appears to have been happening over the last few years.
“There is little point in throwing money at a course that has been very successfully run down, with a clubhouse so dilapidated and boarded up it looks like something off a bomb site and an awful overgrown hole in the ground that used to be a driving range.
“Or perhaps this was the plan all along? RIP Tamworth, a sad loss to the community.”
“It strikes me that Humberston Heights needs to develop a sound business and marketing plan to ensure its survival,” added Jeremy Prescott.
“There are plenty of golfers out there who, I am sure, would want what Humberstone Heights offers but they need to be aware of what it can provide.”
Meanwhile two Leicester MPs, Liz Kendall and Keith Vaz, have both stated their opposition for Western Park and Humberstone Heights to be closed down.
Kendall said: “Western Park golf course is a hugely valuable community asset, which has a rich history and a great deal of potential going forward.
“I’ll be working with my constituents to see if we can find a sustainable model to keep golf at Western Park for many years to come.”
Vaz stated: “Humberstone Heights is a vital resource and it helps so many people to take up sport.
“I shall use every muscle in my body to fight to keep it open.”