Hoylake Golf Resort, Agricultural Land Assessment

Hoylake Golf Resort Soil Quality Assessment Needs A Rethink

Rough overlay of proposed Hoylake Golf Resort site onto map
A rough overlay of Hoylake Golf Resort on the agricultural land it seeks to occupy

The proposed ‘Hoylake’ Golf Resort development site (it actually sits outside the township of Hoylake) has as far as the Wirral Society know, always been cited as being situated on ‘low grade’ agricultural land. Indeed, Capita Symonds Needs Assessment Report commissioned by Capita Symonds for Wirral Council in 2006 quotes the following about the proposed site:

The land is generally low quality farmland, very flat and subject to flooding, devoid of any specific features and in need of remedial action.(Page 1, point 7)

However, it has been brought to the Society’s attention, that the Capita Symonds report makes a limited, singular assumption about the land when there is other more detailed data available to draw from. We suspect the Capita Symonds report has used something along the lines of the Agricultural Land Classification map North West Region (ALC002) available on the Natural England website to make its brief assessment. This sort of map contains limited information and is issued with the following caveat:

These maps are not sufficiently accurate for use in assessment of individual fields or sites and any enlargement could be misleading.

To get the full picture, it is necessary to dig a little deeper and ask some expert advice…

What is a ‘Soil Association’?

Despite sounding like some sort of local allotment club sub-committee, every piece of land in the UK has what is known as a ‘Soil Association’ grade attached to it. This includes amongst other things, scientific information recorded about its soil types and agricultural suitability. The ‘Soil Association’ data is collected and made available by Landis.org, Cranfield University and DEFRA.

Make a visit to the Soilscapes website and a bigger, more accurate picture emerges showing the different areas of land the proposed development will occupy. The Soilscapes website itself, was developed by Cranfield University and sponsored by DEFRA for the purpose of “effectively communicating a general understanding of the variations which occur between soil types, and how soils effect the environment. Using their online tools, we discovered the following about the land designated for the golf resort.

Land Covering Hoylake Municipal Golf Course & Carr Lane

Hoylake Golf Resort, site area 1
This is the lowest graded land the Golf Resort would sit on.

This is likely the area referred to as low quality farmland in the Capita Symonds report. Soilscapes report it to be naturally wet very acid sandy and loamy soils with very lowfertility but highly productive, where not stony, and suitable for cereals, roots, potatoes and vegetables but droughty and dependent on irrigation.

Now we move onto the next area of adjoining land which has a slightly different assessment.

The Continuation Of Land From Hoylake Municipal Golf Course – Floodplain

Hoylake Golf Resort, site area 2
This is currently the wettest part of the site the Golf Resort would sit on.

Soilscapes describe this as Loamy and clayey floodplain soils with naturally high groundwater and class it as having moderatefertility levels. They also say close proximity to river results in pollution risk from floodwater scouring and from drainage water after spreading of fertiliser or slurry. This appears to be the main area where the golf course water features are to be situated.

Soilscapes go on to describe it as productive grassland, provided drainage is maintained and suitable for Cereal production where flood risk is low.

Land To The Side Of Saughall Massie Road – Non-Floodplain

Hoylake Golf Resort, site area 3
This is the highest grade land the Golf Resort would sit on.

This takes the least impact from the golf resort layout, but the land in question is described by Soliscapes as being of moderatefertility and slowly permeable, seasonally wet, slightly acid but base-rich, loamy and clayey soils. There appears to be associated risks with flooding onto this area of land fromorganic slurry, dirty water, fertiliser, pathogens and fine sediment which can presumably affect its fertility. However, they note that this land drains to an existing stream network.

They class the soil as mostly suited to grass production for dairying or beef; some cereal production, often for feed. Timeliness of stocking and fieldwork is important, and wet ground conditions should be avoided at the beginning and end of the growing season to avoid damage to soil structure. Land is tile drained and periodic moling or subsoiling will assist drainage. The land adjacent not covered by the resort can presumably still be used for farming. However, whether or not a farmer would still choose to use such land having had other areas taken away for golf resort development is open to speculation.

Due to the aggressive nature of maintaining a golf course with fertilizers specifically designed for non-agricultural use, we would have to question the impact of any such fertilizers on the adjacent land, even if agricultural use was still an option.

Trying to further interpret the various ‘Soil Association’ data on the specific land the site covers was a little more difficult, so we enlisted the help of a person from Cranfield University to give her opinion. She concluded that rather than being the poor farmland described by Wirral Council, the proposed site is made up of the 3 ‘Soil Association’ grades identified with the 3 areas highlighted in this article. She went onto say that the grading of the soil could even be as good as ALC class 1 if better irrigation was introduced. As we know, the land is subject to flooding, but that does not make it any less valuable or less viable as farmland and suggests it could be made better fit for farming purpose than it already is.

Many field systems run on 5-yearly cycles where the land is farmed in sequence and left to recover. Because of the 15 year history of threatened development on this farmland, very little investment in farming has been undertaken which explains why at least visually, the land in question gives the impression of worthless scrubland. Our research suggests that its agricultural value is far greater than would be convenient for an argument to remove it from Green Belt.

Summing Up

We would like to see a more accurate assessment of the agricultural land we stand to lose than so far offered to the council by Capita Symonds. In fact, there has been a distinct absence of any information about the potential impact surrounding the loss of the agricultural land in question. In particular, we note there was no mention of farmland issues at public consultation sessions. We would like to see Wirral Council readdress this taking into account the detailed ‘Soil Association’ information available and offer a public statement explaining why they believe the potential loss of land that may be needed for future food-production as a result of population increase, is of less value than a minority-sport location.

The Capita Symonds report offers an extremely limited assessment of the surrounding farmland, nor does it address concerns about introducing an aggressive, non-agricultural land-maintenance programme alongside existing agricultural land. There has been no mention of fertilizer run-off and its possible effect on neighbouring farmland. Golf course maintenance requires a lot more fertilizer than normal farming and there are other petro-chemicals to consider such as herbicides and pesticides, all applied in greater quantities than found in farming. We are concerned that the unknown volume of chemicals needed to maintain a golf course will leach into the ground, contaminating surface and ground-water supplies, causing harm to the surrounding established flora, fauna and wildlife.

Although we are not experts in soil analysis, we feel it wise to take the findings of a body like Soilscapes as an accurate starting point to discuss the ramifications of sacrificing what appears to be overlooked, useful agricultural land.