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No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
by Jim Arthur


The other day my eye was caught by an article advocating the use of land-fill as a source of income as well as a method of raising' 'unsuitable' land or creating features on flat golf courses. Admittedly, the article contains warnings about unscrupulous elements, but frankly - and I speak from experience - the risks are enormous, the penalties draconian and my advice is that tipping is never worth that risk.

We are not talking about building golf courses on old land-fill sites, though the experiences of many will confirm that this is a risky venture and, in the past, only when all concerned have taken on board what might and often did happen, would I advise going ahead on such terrain. Some risks are obvious, e.g. methane gas emissions, instability, underground fires and toxicity problems.

I well remember the problems on one Pennine site with one hole unavoidably built on a massive industrial tip which was on fire. Snow never lay in that area and we had to build rafts to avoid the possibility of a green - and golfers - being swallowed by the inferno ! That was some years ago and the fire burnt itself out eventually.

The problem is basically one of human nature. Because landfill tax is not payable where recreational facilities would be improved by tipping, such cheaper tipping sites can and will corner the market for all available fill. Unscrupulous developers have been known to collect income without having the slightest intention of building a golf course on the filled site - a condition of consent. One such character to my knowledge was made to cart away all the fill at his expense - an astronomical loss.

Raising low, badly drained areas by tipping is nearly always a mistake. Drainage problems are still there and not likely to be improved by being covered by several metres depth of impermeable fill. I know of very few wet areas which cannot be drained - in fact, in the Netherlands one new course was well below sea level and the solution, as at many other low wet sites in the UK, was to pump, even at St Andrews !

Creating features is also a dubious justification - unless done extremely skilfully such mounds and ridges always look unnatural, but worse , unless an adequate depth of top soil is expensively imported, they never develop a healthy sward. County waste management officers are very diligent and make frequent and unannounced calls. If they find something wrong, they have almost unlimited powers - with hugely expensive repercussions. Control is therefore vital on virtually a 24 hour basis.

Whilst honest operators may exert care in control at their end, others may not or cannot do so. Remember that what is seen on top of the tipper load of fill may be totally different from the bulk ! The more clever crooks sandwich the dubious material in the middle ! The developer or Club will therefore have to provide a qualified, alert and strong supervisor all day (and all night unless the site can be secured).

By definition, the land-fill material is hardly likely to be homogenous. Pockets of rubble mixed in with infertile and impermeable clay sub-soil does not lead to good drainage. The cost of importing (and finding !) up to 300mm of good top soil overlay soon knocks the gilt off the gingerbread. Economising initially leads to much higher costs later.

All these snags and we have not even considered such problems as toxic wastes, banned materials or fly tipping ! Even an absence of five minutes gives an illegal tipper a chance to drop his load of rubbish - it takes a lot longer to collect it and find a legal home for it !

Asbestos is currently the No 1 baddie. Asbestos, where undisturbed, presents no problems, but disposal of both old sheeting and of insulation can be hazardous and consequently is heavily controlled. This leads to illegal dumping with inherent pollution risks. Not only are voids left but toxicity is permanent and it is the unfortunate landowner who gets the clearing-up bill.

There are other aspects of this tipping problem, exemplified by cases where Clubs have to dispose of waste fill, e.g. when excavating foundations for new buildings or disposing of subsoil when creating water features/reservoirs. One case comes to mind, when this 'spare subsoil' was used to build out a massive raised tee straight onto a steep slope, without any anchoring. It was in such imminent danger of avalanching down the hill that the Health & Safety inspector would not even venture onto it !

Tipped areas tend to be flat (unless contours are expensively built in from the start by architectural supervision. Constant traversing over the site creates severe compaction. This combination produces massive drainage problems, almost impossible to resolve. One cannot mole-drain let alone run drains through such a mixed base. Importing good top soil over such an impermeable foundation results in turning it into slurry. Sloping the site helps a little but only on small areas.

Just dumping spoil to make features on flat terrain needs to be done with extreme care and under the constant supervision of a qualified golf course architect. There are too many cases of 'improved' holes looking like football pitches running through huge railway cuttings - yet still we see these costly errors repeated ! Natural contours can be achieved only by 'hands-on' supervision.

Current debates on the viability of many of our new courses relate equally to extensions. If only the financial feasibility had been properly and independently assessed, with less unjustified optimism, there might be fewer projects, including extensions, in their present straits. Building courses on fill involves too many imponderable risks, when there are too many known ones !

My advice based on hundreds of case histories over more than 30 years of course construction is firmly to have nothing to do with land-fill, however attractive the bait may seem, for it in always ends in tears before bedtime.