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Is your local golf course really what it appears to be?

Is your local golf course really what it appears to be?
It’s a crisp Saturday morning, you’re out with a few friends for a round of golf.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind? A few hours peace and quiet? What you’ll be cooking for dinner that evening? It probably isn’t “I wonder what this golf course used to be”….. Unless of course you are a keen historian and local to the area.

The UK has a strong industrial legacy, resulting from the Industrial Revolution, but many of our home grown industries have been in decline in the last few decades. But what has remained is swathes of the country transforming land use into something else, not always with the desired effect.

One golf course that has hit the headlines over many years is St Michaels Golf Course in Widnes. The original St Michaels Golf course was created in the 1970s on the northern section of a former chemical tip that was used for depositing industrial waste products. During its early years players losing their balls would climb into Stewards Brook, which ran through the course, to find their balls had instantly corroded. Stewards Brook eventually acquired the less than complementary nickname of “the river of jizz” from local golfers on golf course review sites warning fellow golfers against ever entering. It later transpired that this brook and many other parts of the course, were contaminated due to the presence of galligu, an unpleasant yet locally widespread byproduct of the alkali industry that contains high levels of arsenic plus many other heavy metals. The course was eventually closed in 2004 and designated as Contaminated Land, and has since undergone extensive and expensive remediation work.

Ordnance Survey 1894 map (1:10,560 scale)

The tainted reputation of St Michaels led us to look a little more closely at other golf courses around the UK and maybe unsurprisingly their former uses are not always on par. Due to a lack of regulation prior to the Control of Pollution Act 1974, any waste type could be taken to landfill without records being kept.

Whilst playing golf on sites where landfilling or other activities have taken place is perfectly safe and would not impact one’s health, we probably wouldn’t recommend reverting to your toddler days of making mud pies.

From utilising our unique historical land use database and other third party datasets, our GIS team extracted all active golf courses from OS Open Zoomstack and overlaid with our data to show that 393 golf courses across the country are located on former landfill sites and refuse heaps. A further 217 golf courses intersect with former potentially contaminative land uses, which is exactly what we’ve seen with St Michaels. Here are a few of those examples:

Dukes Meadows Golf Course c.1947. Former gravel and ballast works and official landfill 1945-1950

Rowley Regis Golf Course c. 1883

Rowley Regis Golf Course c. 1914

Former quarry, concrete works, brewery and official landfill 1978-1987 accepting all waste types.

Torbay Golf Centre c. 1968

This doesn’t just appear to be a historical issue. Landfill or inert waste projects, whilst controversial, are popular with golf clubs. It appears that venues are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to have large amounts of waste deposited and buried at their sites, which are then used to re-landscape and usually improve the offerings at the course, but often to the potential detriment of the local residents and the environment.

In 2012, the Environment Agency (EA) issued Luddington Golf Ltd, the owners of Stafford Castle Golf Club, with an environmental permit that allowed inert waste to be deposited to aid the construction of some mounds. In 2013, the EA allowed a company called 4 Recycling Group to spread sludge or “sewage cake” from the treatment of urban waste water as a soil conditioner to fertilise the soil. However, in 2014, the Agency received multiple complaints about the odour emanating from the Club1, which transpired into waste being deposited that wasn’t acceptable under the permit terms, in addition to activities not being managed satisfactorily, resulting in Luddington Golf Ltd being issued with an enforcement notice to stop the site accepting certain wastes and remove the unacceptable waste2.

In another case in October 2020, it was reported that a North Staffordshire golf club (Whiston Hall) had applied for planning permission to remodel part of the course, using waste material. Whilst it is claimed the waste is non-hazardous, the remodel was branded by objectors as a “landfill in disguise”, and probably unsurprisingly was rejected by councillors3.

Whether this is a case of concealed landfills to avoid landfill tax and to avoid increasing the size of our landfills, or a case of clever waste management is a debatable point. One thing we do know is that this is a common waste management technique used around the country. I wonder what hidden secrets or buried treasure you may find on your next round of golf…..

Groundsure’s Historical Land Use Database (HLUD) underpins the contaminated land assessment of all our environmental reports. Supplemented with authoritative third party datasets, to create the most comprehensive risk assessment available. Whether you are buying your dream home, or investing in commercial premises, Groundsure’s expertise and in-depth data provides you with everything you need, and drives your transactions forward.

Note: The analysis used for this article was based on active golf courses identified using OS Open Zoomstack, Environment Agency/Natural Resources Wales active and historic landfills, and Groundsure’s unique data extracted from historic Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.


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Dec 1, 2020

Catherine Shiers