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OPINIONPoliticsMay 10, 2024

It’s time to ditch Berhampore Golf Course


The under-utilised course is a waste of space, and with a little political will, it could be turned into something better.

For the duration of her stay in Wellington, my long-suffering cousin listened to me rant about golf courses. They’re bad for the environment: water intensive and pesticide heavy. They take up space that could have been put to better use, such as literally anything else. They’re also elitist. I mean, who plays golf? “Steve and Joe from accounts,” I would tell her, envisioning two retired white guys in sweater vests and tight-fitting pants. “That’s who plays golf.”

This topic managed to infiltrate a surprising number of our conversations, but flared up as we completed part of the Southern Walkway. There, the hypothetical became tangible and my ranting took on magnum-opus proportions. “I mean we already have a golf course in Miramar,” I grumbled, as we passed by an empty segment of the 37-hectare greens. “Why do we need one here in Berhampore?” 

Implicit in my question, of course, was my answer: we don’t. 

In 2021, the greens had an average of 12.2 users a day, or just over seven if you don’t count the disc golfers. If you’re one of the club’s 100 members, that means no queues. If you’re one of Wellington Central’s 213,000 odd other residents, it means loads of land you will probably not use but continue to support financially through parking tickets and rates. 

Granted, it doesn’t take much bank to keep the greens green: around $150k a year. The real cost is the resources and the opportunity. By having Berhampore Golf Course we don’t have an Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush of the southern suburbs. We also don’t have more houses to help ease the chronic shortfall that has pushed the region’s rents up to $640 a week, and house prices to $820,000. 

I am not a creative thinker, and calls to turn the space into something other than an adult’s playground are not new. Even suggestions to downsize the golfer playground, though, have proved contentious. The reasons for this are nominally two-fold, but ultimately political. 

The course is part of the Wellington Town Belt Act 2016, and so major changes to its use – such as turning chunks of it into housing – require changes to legislation. This is, administratively speaking, a pain in the ass, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Legislation is axed, amended and introduced all the time, sometimes too quickly to be well-thought out, understood, or properly consulted on and interrogated. 

The Fast-track Approvals Bill, for instance, was introduced to the House under urgency at break-neck speed and is now with select committee. Chris Bishop reckons it will be good for lifting New Zealand’s productivity and living standards. Other commentators think it’s “the worst piece of law proposed since 1979” and a “naked power grab” that undermines Te Tiriti obligations and will have devastating consequences for the environment. 

How, then, can government be so quick and yet so slow to make change? In this case, the current right-leaning central government hates “red tape” with the same vehemence with which the left-leaning local government loves the course. 

Opened in 1915, Wellington city councillors have continuously protected the greens, pointing to its history as the country’s first, and city’s only,working-class golf course.” In 2019, then-Rongotai rep and club-patron, Paul Eagle, said the course was multicultural, inclusive, and beloved in the area. Southern ward councillor Laurie Foon agreed, calling the course an asset to the community, and something that she would stand in front of a bulldozer to protect.

Today, the idea of a working-class golf course seems oxymoronic. Still, it’s hard to have gripes with the concept behind it: working-class people, like all people, deserve leisure time that they can fill with activities of their choosing. Membership and user rates, though, indicate that golfing in Berhmapore isn’t an activity many people are choosing. For some, like me, this is because I would rather spend a day plucking hair off my arms. For others, it may be because their leisure time is shrinking as they work more hours to get by.

Councillors have also extolled the benefits of a large, green space easily accessible in an urban area. Then-mayor Justin Lester called the course part of the “lungs of the city,” and said that legislative changes could set a precedent that opens up the entirety of the town belt to a development free-for-all. Foon warned that letting even a part of the land go would make it hard to claw back, pointing to efforts in London and New York to protect Hyde and Central parks respectively.

The psychological and physical benefits of being in green spaces is well-documented. This argument, then — that we need to protect and maintain the grounds — could bolster the case against developing the land. What it can’t do is explain why it needs to remain an 18-hole. 

Last year, without a golf course, Central Park welcomed 42 million visitors. As a result of deliberate conservation efforts, it also housed 198 native plant species, and provided food and shelter for bees, birds, and other wildlife. In Aotearoa, one of the best things we can do for our own native critters is provide them with nourishing habitats. For most creatures, people included, a golf course is not a nourishing habitat. 

A golf course is also not really the issue; governance is. Cutting off a conversation before it can be had, à la local government, is a bit like ramming through legislation without debate. It’s an exercise in privilege, and it allows the few to make significant and lasting decisions on behalf of the many. This is, of course, how democracy works. When it’s working well, though, elected officials care about the ambitions of their constituents, and understand the implications of their own decisions. 

As it is, our local leaders seemed to have misplaced the gall that our national leaders have picked up. As a result, our country is staring down the barrel of the Fast-track Approvals Bill, which would override, among others, the Resource Management, Conservation, and Wildlife Acts, while also maintaining an Act that protects a golf course (the Wellington Town Belt Act). Independently, and when taken together, neither piece of legislation preserves what it should. That includes the dignity of the average working-class New Zealander.

This article was updated to clarify that the Fast-Track Approvals Bill was introduced to the House under urgency. It is now with select committee.

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