Tap beneath the surface of an issue and all sorts of questions emerge. So it is with the Auckland Council's review of its ownership of 13 golf courses, worth $40 million. At the moment, the land is locked away from development for housing or recreational use by non-golfers. The review needs to establish whether that is sustainable and to explain why some courses deliver tiny financial returns for a council in need of new sources of revenue.
The large number of courses in council hands is a legacy of Auckland's local-body arrangements before the Super City. Many boroughs essentially gifted land to golf clubs in recognition of the benefits of green open spaces and the game itself. Therefore, several courses occupy real estate worth millions but pay peppercorn rents of as little as $1 a year. The pluses they provide for the environment and the benefit derived from playing golf have not changed. What has is the pressure exerted by other potential uses for the land.
This should, as far as possible, be resisted. The council believes there will be an increased or sustained demand for golf across Auckland at least until 2030. Then it could subside. That forecast could easily prove astray. Golf is notably popular among Asian immigrants, and is gaining a head of steam thanks to the exploits of Lydia Ko. It is easy to see it becoming far more popular if this country continues to produce great players. Similarly, the presence of so many attractive courses close to Auckland will surely prove an increasing drawcard for overseas tourists. And why single out golf? What about the playing venues of other sporting codes - tennis, for example?
That is not to say all aspects are sustainable. Clubs should be paying something closer to market rates for the land they occupy. If they cannot afford this, they are probably not viable. One option has been taken by the Manukau Golf Club. It has sold land for a housing and retirement village, and continued its activities on cheaper land elsewhere. Alternatively, clubs could go some way to justifying low rents by providing public access to their courses for recreation, if they don't already. For more than a decade, Scots have been able to ramble across courses as long as they stay on paths, do not interfere with play, and do not venture on to greens. By and large, it has worked. The potential obstacle is that the right to roam through open country is more ingrained in Britain than here. Some of our golfers may have to undergo an attitude change.
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But that would be preferable to their course being closed or, as as happened at Chamberlain Park, being reduced to nine holes because the Albert-Eden Local Board wants to create sports fields, restore a stream, and put in public walkways. An 18-hole course, says the board, is an unacceptable luxury because of the shortage of open space in its area. Be that as it may, it would be extremely shortsighted to condemn many of the city's golf courses to grey housing or apartment blocks. Golf courses should not be subsidised to a ridiculous degree, but nor should the benefits they provide be underestimated.