[from: The Guardian]
Too many bookies? You bet!
Saturday January 12 2008
The walk from Peter Lorimer’s house to his local post office is no more than 300 yards. But in that short stroll he passes five betting shops: two William Hills, two Ladbrokes and one Coral. Opposite the post office, an official note, posted on a derelict former bank, says an application has been made for a change of use – to a betting shop. Further down the road, another former bank is being fitted out, this time by new chain, betterbet.
The Green Lanes area of north London, in which Lorimer lives, isn’t a wealthy area. It’s a scruffy but vibrant inner city suburb whose sub-divided Victorian terraces are home to an extraordinarily diverse multi-cultural community. With a transient population, it’s not easy to find residents willing to join local campaigns, but the explosion in betting shops has united the community in opposition.
“We’re being saturated by gambling outlets. We’re becoming a mini Las Vegas,” says Lorimer, who makes an unlikely campaigner. He is a roadie who works on tours for some of Britain’s biggest bands – and he’s not against gambling. It’s just that the numbers are beginning to overwhelm what is still predominantly a residential area.
“More betting shops are the last thing we need,” he says. “There are a lot of vulnerable people around here on low incomes or benefits. We went knocking on doors and in the two streets next to the latest shop application we got 200 signatures. Everybody I speak to locally thinks it’s nuts that we have yet more betting shops coming in. Why can’t we have bookshops rather than bookies?”
The answer may lie in the new Gambling Act 2005, better known for its “super casino” controversy, which critics fear has opened the floodgates to a wave of betting shops across the country.
After years in which the number of betting shops in the UK fell to around 8,500 – largely as a result of consolidation among the big chains – thousands more are expected to open in the coming months and years.
Smaller chains, such as betterbet and Paddy Power, are drawing up dramatic expansion plans. Betterbet currently has 25 shops around London but its chief executive, Ian Hogg, wants to take that to 200 shops in a matter of years. Betfred, the biggest of the independents, says it will open a further 80 shops this year, while Paddy Power, which has more than 60 shops in London, will be announcing plans to expand across the country later this year.
Hogg estimates that by the end of next year a further 1,500 betting shops will have opened across Britain.
Behind the new wave of shop openings is a crucial change in the rules governing applications for licences which came into force in September 2007. Under the old rules, a betting operator had to apply to a magistrate and prove that demand in an area was not already fulfilled. But three months ago (as part of the 2005 Act) the “demand” restriction was lifted, and magistrates can no longer rule against new betting outlets.
Councils can reject only if they are able to prove the operator is not “fit and proper”, unfair to punters, a source of disorder and putting children or other vulnerable people at risk. “You can’t object on moral grounds. That’s specifically excluded by the Act. If we do manage to get the council to reject an application, then they [the betting companies] simply appeal and clobber us with QCs and the like,” says Lorimer.
In September last year, Lorimer’s council, Haringey, became the licensing authority for 67 betting shops in the borough. It says that since then, it has received a further six applications. Two have been rejected but it is understood they are moving to appeal.
The big chains, such as Ladbrokes, say they have no plans to expand their networks, which typically have 2,000 or more shops. But the smaller chains are rubbing their hands at the growth opportunities.
Fred Done, owner of Betfred, says: “The changes in legislation have obviously made it easier for us to open shops without much opposition, as bookmakers already established in areas used to object and claim there was not enough demand for another bookmaker in a particular area.”
High street betting outlets were hit in the 1990s – first by the national lottery and then by online gambling. But in recent years they have developed a lucrative new source of income: “fixed odds betting terminals” which critics dub the “crack cocaine of gambling addicts”. They are electronic roulette and blackjack machines with a relatively high payout ratio – 97.5% – but which are nonetheless proving hugely profitable.
Entrepreneur Luke Johnson, who has owned betting shops and bingo halls, wrote for the Financial Times three months ago that “these electronic touch-screen roulette machines are lethal – and wildly profitable”.
Each betting shop is allowed four, and they are estimated to produce profits of £2,000-£2,500 per week. “In essence, in the past five years, the nation’s bookies have become fantastically lucrative slot-machine arcades,” wrote Johnson.
The Gambling Commission, the new regulatory body for the industry, says it is still too early to assess the impact of legislative changes. But its “prevalence survey” suggests the number of problem gamblers in the UK is static at around 250,000. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is actively monitoring FOBTs (now renamed B2s) and is prepared to restrict them if evidence emerges of widespread harm.
Lorimer says he will continue his battle locally. “It’s not easy fighting big business. But this is about protecting our children and the community from a ridiculous over-exposure to betting and gambling.”