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Friday, 14 August 2015

The answer lies on the golf course

I think I have the answer to two of Britain's biggest problems: shortage of housing and concern over immigration.

Golf courses.

No, not build more of them. Build on them: affordable homes for those who need them, and temporary accommodation units for refugees and asylum-seekers. Oh yes, and then they can help to build the new homes.

I have nothing against golf -- or indeed against golfers (some of my best friends … etc.). It's just that whenever I'm told that the UK is full up, and that there's no room for any more foreigners, I think of all those golf courses I skirt around whenever I go walking outside London.

Did you know that there are about 2,000 golf courses in England, covering 150,000 hectares or 1.1 per cent of the country's total land area? With average housing density in England of 42 dwellings per hectare, that's enough land for more than 6 million new homes (plus the new schools and hospitals to go with them).

According to the latest report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the number of new properties coming onto the UK market has now fallen for six consecutive months. Demand, on the other hand, is steadily rising.  In the words of an excellent recent analysis by the editor of the Independent, Amol Rajan, the shortage of housing "is the greatest scandal in modern Britain."

Still, I don't want to be unreasonable about this, so let's say we build on only half the golf courses. That would be more than enough for all the new homes we're likely to need for at least the next decade -- and there would still be plenty of courses left for the golfers.  

It's not as if all those courses are flourishing. Golf club membership has fallen by 20 per cent over the past 10 years or so, partly because in times of economic stringency, club membership fees can easily be regarded as an unnecessary expense, and partly because some golfers have metamorphosed into a new animal species known as MAMIL (middle-aged men in Lycra, otherwise known as cyclists).

So what about those refugees and asylum-seekers? Well, some of them have some very useful skills. And according to another report this week, nearly half of the UK's biggest construction companies are having real trouble finding enough bricklayers, plasterers and carpenters.

So here's the idea. First find a golf club in trouble, then buy the course and erect a couple of hundred container-based temporary accommodation units. (Did you know that Europe's biggest manufacturer of container housing is expecting an 8-10 per cent increase this year in demand for its products?)  

Then find asylum-seekers with the relevant skills -- or who are prepared to learn them at the nearest further education college -- and set them to work building new affordable homes, paying them no less than George Osborne's new living wage and deducting a fair sum each week for their accommodation. All available jobs will also, of course, be open to applications from UK citizens as well.

(The Lustig plan could also help to reverse what the National Audit Office recently called the "rapid decline" in the financial health of FE colleges. I can't help but wonder why a government that professes to be so concerned at a lack of skills among British job applicants should be slowly killing off one of the main resources for skills-based learning.)

You probably think my golf course plan is plain daft. But I'm not the only one to suggest it might be worth thinking about: the former business secretary Vince Cable  raised the idea on the fringes of the Lib Dem conference last year; Jenny Jones of the Green party has also suggested it, and the Labour MP and London mayoral candidate hopeful David Lammy complained recently: "Green belt regulations allow older generations to protect their golf courses while young people can't afford a decent home."

I bow to no one in my love of the English countryside, although to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of golf courses, which seem to me to add nothing to the natural beauty of the landscape.  I entirely recognise, however, that golfers have as much right as anyone else to enjoy their sport; I just think they could probably manage with fewer hectares. And the rest of us could certainly do with a lot more homes.