Justin Lester

In defence of Mornington Golf Club

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Wellington Mayor Justin Lester has been copping flak for his intervention to save the Mornington Golf Club in Berhampore from losing half it's course. Sadly critics of his intervention can't see past their own blinkered dislike of the game, because the reality is that golfers at Mornington aren't subsidised much more than other recreational users in Wellington.

For example, going off Wellington City Council's 2016/17 annual report, and reported playing numbers of around 25 people each day, each round of golf played at Mornington is subsidised by ratepayers to the tune of $16. Going off that same report, each visit to one of the city's swimming pools is subsidised to the order of $10 per visit.

The problem is that the subsidy per round or per visit is only part of the calculation you need to do when assessing the value of the Council subsidising a recreational activity. It's also useful to look at how that subsidy translates per hour of recreational activity. E.g. how much recreational bang for buck is that subsidy delivering.

Looking at the data Google collects about the length of visits to each of the Council's pools, it's not unreasonable to say that each visit to the pool on average lasts for around an hour. So effectively the subsidy per hour of activity for swimmers is $10.

As for the golfers at Mornington, on average it takes around 4 hours to play 18 holes of golf. However, not all golfers play 18 holes, with a mix of people playing 9 or 18 hole games. So the 18 hole golfers are subsidised for their recreational activity at $4 an hour, whereas the 9 hole golfers are at $8 an hour.

So on a per hour of recreational activity, the Council gets more bang for buck out of the subsidy provided to users of Mornington than it does for the swimmers.

Not surprisingly, we're not seeing anyone arguing for the closure of swimming pools though.

Likewise when you look more broadly at the recreational spend of Wellington City Council, golfers pay for around 26% of the upkeep of the course and swimmers pay for about 34% of their swimming facilities. Interestingly, users of sport fields (excluding the new synthetic fields) only pay for 8% of the upkeep of those facilities.

Once again, we don't see people arguing that rugby, cricket, league, football, softball, or netball clubs should be charged 300%-400% more than what they currently are so that they're contributing at a similar level to users of other facilities.

We accept that as part of a Council's responsibilities to their communities that they have to, where possible and practical, provide recreational facilities for a range of activities. That's not to suggest that Council should be running out and building golf courses, as obviously the expense of trying to build one now would be prohibitively expensive, but it does make the case that Council should work to preserve the one it does own.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the cost of maintaining Mornington represents just 0.39% of the Council's recreation spend, and just 0.03% of the Council's overall spend in 2016/17. There are much bigger fish to fry in the search for more efficient Council spending than penalising the users of Mornington for playing golf.

The reality too is that once you lose half that golf course, you've lost it forever, and it'll make it even harder for the golf club to survive. Factor in that Mornington is the only accessible golf club in the North Island, and as a result of that were able to host the golf component of the NZ Special Olympics in 2017.

This means that losing the course is to deny golfers with special needs in the North Island the last course that's able to fully cater for them. It makes critics of the course seem especially petty and heartless in the quibbling over $152,000 of Council money being spent on it.

Public bashing of golfers and golf courses is nothing new. There's a popular, but mistaken, belief that golf is a game only played by those with plenty of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people I go and play golf with range from electricians, plumbers, builders, teachers, and hospitality workers, right through to the perceived usual suspects - accountants, lawyers, doctors etc. Most of the people I play with simply can't afford to be a member at most golf courses, so we're either affiliates or, in my case, just play casually when we can.

It's also worth considering that those calling for the course to be halved need to consider the fact that the course is considered part of the Town Belt, so the land legally can't be used for anything else other than recreational purposes. It makes criticism of the Council funding of the course such as "tell that to Wellington's homeless" particularly absurd.

If cutting $75,000 from course maintenance would magically solve homelessness in Wellington, I'm sure the Council could easily get that funding by more broadly cutting expenses elsewhere, or adding a paltry 0.15% to this year's rate increase.

Another criticism I've seen leveled at publicly owned golf courses is that the clubs on them restrict access to the public by charging a fee to use the facility. This is a little bizarre in terms of a line of argument. Other sporting codes also effectively deny public access to recreational facilities when they use them - I challenge you to walk your dog through the middle of a football game, or to go for a run around the inside of the Basin Reserve when there's a international cricket match on! The area covered by Mornington Golf Course represents a minuscule portion of the Town Belt, and it is surrounded by plenty of other parks and walking tracks that mean the effect of closing public access to the course is negligible. 

Sadly, people seem more inclined to let their own subjective biases about the value of golf as a recreational activity dictate their view on whether or not Mornington should lose half its course. Just because you mightn't play or value it as a recreational activity doesn't mean that it isn't important to other people. I mightn't currently play cricket, rugby, netball, or football (despite playing all in the past), but I like to know that those facilities are available and provided by Council to those who do choose to spend their recreational time playing them.

The same is true for those who play at Mornington Golf Club.