The ambitious new Wirral Golf Resort plan will change the face of Hoylake forever, if and when it gets the go-ahead.
Golf is already big business for Hoylake, and Wirral in general, thanks chiefly to the historic and beautiful Royal Liverpool Golf Club, now triumphantly back on the circuit as one of the venues for the world’s most famous golf tournament, The Open.
But the town is also the home for the less illustrious but locally well-loved Hoylake Municipal Golf Course – one of Wirral’s popular council-owned courses offering a welcome to all levels of amateur golfer.
It is this less distinguished track that is planned to be torn up to make way for a new Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course – a 7,000-plus yard championship standard beast to test the mettle of the finest golfers, which will add massively to the town’s attractions as an international centre of golf tourism.
As well as a Marriott-Run resort hotel and spa, the project will include a new Golf Links Academy, which will help golfers learn about the demands of links golf before taking on the challenges the north west’s Golf Coast has to offer.
The poor local hackers who rely on Hoylake for their weekly 18 holes need have no fears though. As West Kirby Today learned when we popped down to one of the busy public consultation sessions about the plans in November, the plan also envisions the construction of a brand new 18 hole municipal course.
And according to officials at the event, the council will be insisting that the new municipal course is the first part of the project to be built, so the borough’s amateurs will not find themselves without a home while the development work goes on.
The new municipal will not be a Jack Nicklaus signature course like its upmarket neighbour – but it will be designed by the great man’s company, so it is safe to assume that it will be a fine addition to the borough’s municipal golf stable.
The new municipal course will be built on agricultural land, and with the whole 350 acre golf resort development eating up a huge chunk of Wirral’s precious green belt, there will undoubtedly be some who will fear for the impact on the environment.
But it is claimed that the project will include “extensive opportunities for habitat creation”, and the Jack Nicklaus Group have a strong track record for protecting and enhancing the wilderness environment around their courses.
The development area is prone to flooding, but the designs for both courses include major man-made water hazards – huge lakes which will help provide natural drainage for the land and create wildlife habitats as well as enhancing the challenge for golfers. The council says these elements are to be scrutinised by the Environment Agency as part of the planning process.
The Wirral Golf Resort plan was hatched by Wirral council as part of its plans to attract new investment, visitors and jobs to the borough.
The Nicklaus Joint Venture Group, also including Marriott, became the preferred developer last July after winning a “beauty contest” of potential investors. In addition to the luxury hotel complex, the development will also boast new high-end private homes, details of which are yet to be unveiled.
Labour Council leader and West Kirby resident Cllr Phil Davies said when the announcement was made last summer that the project was key to his own party’s commitment to bring £250m of new private investment to the borough and boost the local tourist economy to £450m by 2020.
He said: “We share the developer’s ambition for Hoylake to be the capital of England’s NW Golf Coast, attracting visitors from across the UK as well as US, Japan and Europe to master the art of links golf at a purpose-built academy and play the courses along the region’s coast.
“It is important the council and the developers keep listening to local people as these proposals move forward.”
The hoped-for benefits from the project include 175 new jobs, and critically a new link road opening up a route from Hoylake to Saughall Massie. Traffic for the golf resort would be steered from the M53, along Saughall Massie Road, and out to the resort on this new road, taking away the potential pressure on the main A540 route through Hoylake.
How much opposition the plan will attract is difficult to assess. On the day we visited the initial November consultations, most of the visitors seemed to be pleased by what they were hearing, if a little sceptical as to whether such a massive project could be delivered.
There are some big hurdles to jump. In order to achieve planning permission to develop Green Belt land, the developers will have to demonstrate “very special circumstances” in order to allow it to go ahead. These would no doubt revolve around the potentially massive economic benefits.
While the developers are preparing their detailed plans for submission, major traffic and environmental surveys will be carried out in 2016 to get a better picture of the impact the project is likely to have.
Then a more formal public consultation process will take place, with a view to a planning application being submitted by the developers in mid-2017.
If the plans are “called in” by the government – a step which is quite routine in projects of this scale, particularly given the Green Belt implications – it could easily be a couple of years before final planning approval is given.
Then, and only then, could work begin. And there is one more wild card that makes timing this project more than a little tricky.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Society is due to bring the Open back to Hoylake at some point in the next few years. With the courses already named until 2019, and a Scottish course likely to be chosen in 2020, it could just be that 2021 is the year that golf’s greatest tournament is destined to return to the town.
Having half of Hoylake as a major building site when the Open roadshow rolls in would serve nobody’s best interests.
Jack Nicklaus has some great memories of Hoylake, not least when the “Golden Bear” prowled its fairways as defending champion in the 1967 Open, only to be pipped at the post by Argentinian Roberto de Vicenzo.
“I had a chance to win coming down the stretch, but I couldn’t quite push it over the top,” he recalled.
“Hoylake has got a rich history in the game of golf. You have great weather in the Hoylake area as compared to other British Open sites. The micro-climate there seems to be a lot better. Every time I’ve played at Hoylake we’ve had good weather.
“I know this golf project we are going to do in the Hoylake area is going to be very special. It is going to add to the legacy of golf in the Hoylake area, and we are looking forward to it very much.”