As the government announces it will hold a public inquiry into plans to create a Ryder Cup golf course in Bolton, reporter Nick Statham looks into the history behind the controversy.
Housing secretary James Brokenshire’s decision to call in Peel’s bid to host the Ryder Cup is just the latest chapter in a saga that has put a historic park at the centre of the development giant’s plans for the north west.
Hulton Park is a Grade II listed heritage site close to Westhoughton and Over Hulton, in the north of the borough.
The history of the sprawling 1,000-acre estate dates back centuries. The Hulton family’s links can be traced to at least as early the 12th century and Richard De Hulton established the first Hulton Hall in the mid-1300s.
But the family’s fourth baronet, Sir Geoffrey Hulton, who served in the Royal Navy Marines died in 1993, signalling the end of the Hulton dynasty.
The estate was inherited by his nephew Hugh Butterfield, but the family link was broken altogether when he sold up to The Peel Group in 2010.
Established by chairman John Whittaker more than four decades ago, Peel has grown into a huge conglomerate responsible some of the north’s biggest regeneration projects.
It counts the redevelopment of Salford Quays, including the creation of Media City and Manchester’s Trafford centre among its catalogue of schemes.
As well as developing swathes of Salford over recent decades t is also behind Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters projects in Merseyside.
Its has come under fire for its labyrinthine corporate structure, once being branded ‘the biggest company you’ve never heard of’ by The Independent.
Its critics claim its almost unrivalled investment power has resulted in it wielding too much power over politicians and councils, “blurring the lines” between public and private sector interests.
But it was not until seven years after acquiring Hulton Park that Peel submitted its £240m proposals for the land.
The first section of the two-part application sought permission to create an 18-hole, Ryder Cup standard golf course, including a a driving range, practice course and 142-bedroom luxury hotel.
But accompanying this are plans for up to 1,036 homes at the estate, which Peel has always maintained are essential to fund the elite course.
The prospect of Westhoughton holding the world’s third largest sporting event may have seemed outlandish, but residents, ward councillors and MPs immediately launched a rearguard action to protect the cherished green belt land.
The main vehicle for this opposition was Hulton Estate Area Residents Together (HEART), chaired by Westhoughton South ward councillor David Chadwick.
The group staged protests outside the entrance to Hulton Park and Bolton Town Hall to demand the estate was protected from development.
Supporters were also urged to write to planning chiefs on grounds including unjustified loss of green belt, increased pressure on public services and the impact on traffic around Chequerbent roundabout and Four Ends Lane.
But most tellingly would-be objectors were urged to include the following line in their correspondence: “Peel Holdings have said they need the build the houses to fund a Ryder Cup golf course – we all know this is never coming to Bolton!”
The suspicion among Peel’s opponents was that it was dangling the carrot of a globally prestigious sporting event in order to secure permission to build on green belt land.
Bolton South East MP Yasmin Qureshi levelled that same accusation at the developer last year.
She told us she felt the application was “probably a ruse” to obtain planning permission as the prospect of the tournament coming to Bolton was not realistic.
Ms Qureshi also said she did not believe the proposed development would provide sufficient benefit to allow it to go ahead.
Other notable opponents included Bolton West MP Chris Green , Westhoughton North and Chew Moor councillor Martyn Cox and Liberal Democrats Cllr David Wilkinson.
But in March HEART and its supporters were left reeling when Bolton Council’s planning committee narrowly voted to approve Peel’s plans.
Campaigners vowed to fight on, but admitted the chances of a public inquiry seemed remote.
But this week the secretary of state threw a curveball by calling the application in.
The move now puts the entire plan in the balance as Peel maintains the golf course and housing are inextricably linked, and planning conditions state work on new homes can only commence if the Ryder Cup bid is successful.
It also seems that with uncertainty hanging over Peel’s plans the developer could run out of time.
John Whittaker released a rare public statement in February, in which he told of his ambition to bring one of the world’s biggest sporting events to Bolton.
The decision on the 2026 host is due after this year’s tournament concludes at the end of September.
The public inquiry is expected to take place in six months time, which Peel acknowledges puts it at risk of “missing the programme to bid for and deliver the Ryder Cup”.
But while the minister’s decision raises the prospect of a rare defeat for Peel, HEART secretary Sandra Hesketh says campaigners are already bracing themselves for a huge legal battle.