Financial claims used to justify closure cast into doubt, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter, and James Cracknell
A decision to keep a low-cost golf course closed following the easing of lockdown will not be reviewed by Enfield Council after a scrutiny committee accepted the town hall’s claim that “mothballing” it was cheaper than keeping it open.
The majority of councillors backed the continued closure of Whitewebbs Park Golf Course in Clay Hill during a meeting of the overview and scrutiny committee on Thursday.
After the decision not to reopen the course was announced, the council claimed the sports facility – which it plans to lease out to a commercial partner – had “made a loss of £1.1million over the last five years” and it would be “irresponsible” to continue to subsidise it using taxpayers’ money.
But Tory councillors requested a review of the decision after raising doubts over the validity of the financial figures provided, as well as saying there had been a lack of consultation.
A council report on the decision also appeared to show that the £1.1m loss figure had been calculated using financial data from the previous six years, not five.
Speaking during the meeting, Conservative group leader Joanne Laban said: “We need to get people playing sport. Walking around the course playing sport is good for health and positive mental health – that is why we need to make sure it remains open.”
Cllr Laban said the council had a “moral and professional duty” to consult stakeholders on the closure, including community groups Friends of Whitewebbs Park, Enfield Sport, and the golf club itself.
On the finances, she claimed some of the costs should not have been included in the report, as they would not be picked up by the council. Excluding those costs meant the “net position is a positive one”, she added – and the council was missing out on potential income by closing the course.
Responding to the Tory leader’s statements, council leader Nesil Caliskan, said: “I can assure members that I regard the decisions we make as an administration deeply rooted in our commitment to make sure we spend council finances properly and responsibly – which means we don’t continue to subsidise something that is making a loss.”
The leader claimed there had been “consultation and engagement” on the future of the golf course dating back to at least March 2019. She said it was wrong to remove maintenance and other expenses from the financial figures – and even after doing so, the course was still making a loss every year.
In making her arguments, Cllr Caliskan claimed the golf course had been closed “for the last year”. But it had in fact been open in June, July, August and September 2020, during which time council figures showed that 14,258 rounds of golf were played, up from 9,172 rounds during the same period in 2019.
Regarding the popularity of golf at Whitewebbs Park, which offered low-cost pay-as-you-go rounds, the council’s written response to the scrutiny committee said: “The number of rounds played has fallen consistently for the last four years and this is in line with a fall in rounds played generally.
“There was an increase in rounds played immediately following the release of the first lockdown, although numbers fell in the following months. These
figures are considered exceptional and unlikely to be sustained going forward.”
In response to a call by Conservative councillor Edward Smith for more clarity on a consultation on the course’s future, Mark Bradbury, the council’s director of property and economy, said: “We have committed to engage. That commitment still stands.
“We have committed that no lease will be entered into until that has happened, and we have also committed that no lease will be entered into until a planning consent, should that be required, has been approved, with all of the consultation that goes with that.”
Labour committee member Achilleas Georgiou called for more detail on the finances of the course and said: “Effectively, what the council has done is to mothball the golf course.
“Is it cheaper to close it and mothball it, or rather to keep it open and earn some income from it?”
Cllr Caliskan said: “The income that would be generated in the coming months simply won’t outweigh the costs. Mothballing is lower than keeping it open. Officers have looked at this.”
The leader added that the course was still open to the public for activities such as walking, but the council would not now incur staffing and maintenance costs.
Mark Bradbury added that it was right to include the depreciation in the value of golfing equipment during the accounting process.
Cllr Laban was unconvinced by the arguments and called for the closure to be reconsidered. She said reopening the course would support low-income families who cannot afford more expensive golfing venues and allow the council to capitalise on a post-pandemic “surge in golf”.
But while the two Conservative members of the committee voted to refer the matter to full council for a wider debate, the remaining six Labour councillors opted to confirm the original decision to keep the course closed.