Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Sustainable Communities Act and Betting Shops

In a previous post, we attempted to explain the position of the local authority under the 2005 Gambling Act and reported that in 2009 Lewisham had put forward requests under the Sustainable Communities Act (SCA) to amend the gambling act to give local authorities more freedom to limit the number of betting shops in an area. 

Under the SCA, several local authorities around the country put forward various requests to change various things (see here). We didn't realise that Lewisham's proposal was an initiative of Ladywell's Green councillors. Sue Luxton over at Green Ladywell posted yesterday to say that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has finally responded to all the requests. 
See Sue's post here.

If you didn't know what the Sustainable Communities Act was, here's what the DCLG via Greg Clark MP says it is: "The Government is totally committed to devolving power to local councils, local communities and local citizens. It believes that by giving people more power and control over the services that are delivered in their areas, a new spirit of civic pride in communities can be inspired. It gives people a voice to tell their local council something needs to change – and gives local communities the chance to ask Government to give them the power to make it happen."

However, with regard to betting shops, it still appears to make not a blind bit of difference to the government what local communities think, and the DCLG still seem to think that councils already have the necessary powers to control the betting shop situation.

They list various ways Lewisham might employ the powers they already have to control the number and location of betting shops, but Mayor Jules Pipe in a letter to John Penrose (Department of Culture, Media & Sport) in December 2010, points out that Hackney (and other councils) have already considered fully and taken advice on all of the possible ways it could utilise its present powers, including the practicalities and risks of attempting to implement special, local planning restrictions. 

The DCLG suggest using 'Article 4' powers but Mayor Jules says that this would involve considerable public consultation and significant resources, and would have to be approved by the Secretary of State who already concluded in 2007 that it was not considered an appropriate mechanism to control betting shop numbers. It would also attract and focus opposition from the betting industry and expose the Council to the potential for compensation claims and costs.

What is needed, says Mayor Jules, is to re-establish a specific class for betting shops, that would "provide local authorities with the clear power to have deliberate, purposeful and unambiguous control over the creation of new betting shops."

We find it odd that betting shops (along with estate agents) are classed for planning purposes as A2  and defined as Financial Services. They are hardly the same thing – and gambling is regulated by the Gambling Commission, not the Financial Services Authority (FSA). They are, quite simply, not providing financial services.

Meanwhile, we wonder if the DCLG are living on the same planet.

In their report, they say: "There is a lack of data on the numbers and concentrations of betting shops pre September 2007, as there was no central collection of figures before the introduction of the Gambling Act. DCMS know the total number of betting shops has remained constant or declined in recent years and is working with the Gambling Commission to identify better data on the numbers and locations. But it will be difficult to assess how this may have changed since the Gambling Act came into force in September 2007."

In his paper Better Odds for London's High Street * Ken Livingstone says "Since legislation governing the criteria to obtain a gambling license was relaxed by the 2005 Gambling Act, many parts of London have seen an explosion in the number of betting shops. The capital now has over 2,100 betting shops, up from 1,700 ten years ago and that number is set to continue to rise. More often than not, these new premises have tended to open up in the less affluent parts of the capital, and here, they have used comparatively lower rents to saturate high streets with their presence. Tottenham High Road has over 15 betting shops, Mare Street in Hackney now has 9, and Noel Park Ward in Haringey has 16."

East London Lines reported in September 2010 when Mayor Jules Pipe and Ken Livingstone stood outside the new Paddy Power in Mare Street calling to limit the number of betting shops:
"Paddy Power says that, in fact, there are fewer betting shops in Hackney overall than prior to the 2005 Act. Patrick Nixon, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers concurs, saying that there has been a slight decline in the number of bookmakers operating within the M25 area since the Act came into force in 2007, possibly because of the rise in online gaming. These figures are disputed by Ken Livingstone, who cites Home Office and Gambling Commission figures which show that there were 2,095 gambling licenses in operation in London’s 33 boroughs in 2009, up from 1,721 in 2003."

So the DCLG haven't even bothered to consult the Home Office or the Gambling Commission. You don't have to 'google' far to find more evidence to back this. reported that: 

"The Ladbrokes and William Hills of this world are facing increased competition on the High Street, following the lifting of the "demand test" as part of the 2005 Gambling Act.

"Rival firms, such as Betterbet, Paddy Power, Betfred and Pagebet are unveiling for a plethora of new shop openings. Pagebet Ltd, which currently has 26 shops in the North-East and the Midlands, wants to have a 100-plus estate within three years. Betterbet, which currently has 25 shops around London, wants to increase its estate to 200 shops over the next couple of years.

"Betfred, the biggest of the independent operators, will open a further 80 shops this year alone, whilst Ireland's Paddy Power, which already has more than 60 shops in London, will be announcing plans to expand across the whole of the UK later this year. Sources suggest that the company has its sight set on opening 250 new shops within the next three years."

No sign, then, that the total number of betting shops has remained constant or declined.

Meanwhile, the DCLG acknowledge there are "Concerns about betting shops and problem gambling (relating) to their higher stake/higher prize gaming machines. We think this is a main cause of local concerns. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board, which advises the Gambling Commission and the Government on research, education and treatment, has prioritised the development of a programme of work into the risks relating to higher prize gaming machines."

Yes, about time, but this work should have already been started, if not done. reported in relation to Fixed Odd Betting Terminals that the government had asked the Gambling Commission to look into whether gambling machines were contributing to problem gambling back in 2008

Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe promised to take tough stance. "I'm concerned about the longer-term impact of the growing popularity of FOBTs (fixed-odds betting terminals) and have asked the Gambling Commission to give particular priority to work on the risks associated with high-stakes machines.....We have always said if any evidence emerges that they (FOBTs) are causing harm, then we are prepared to take action and we have the power to take action." commented, "Some conclude that the result is a foregone conclusion, not least, when one considers that the British Gambling Prevalance Survey of 2007 found that "among those who had gambled in the past year, problem gambling prevalence ranged from 1.0% for the National Lottery Draw to 14.7% for spread betting. The next highest prevalence was 11.2% for fixed odds betting terminals, followed by betting exchanges (9.8%), online gambling (7.4%) and online betting (6.0%)."

In addition, even at the state-owned Tote, (currently being sold off to the highest bidder), fixed odds betting terminals now account for 56% of turnover; with annual turnover now close to £1.4 billion (it is probably more now). reported, "The tote is looking for further additional growth utilising a new generation of FOBTs, maximising machine density and capturing the best market share in areas with significant local competition." 
In a recent House of Lords debate, Lord James of Blackheath, asserted that there was a rapid and tangible drift to the conversion by bookmakers of their 10,000 or so betting shops into mini-casinos.

He noted the comments of a senior bookmaker who had recently said to him, "Do you know, our betting shops are empty in the afternoon now; there’s nobody there”. 

“Why is that?” asked Lord James.

The bookie replied, “Because our machines are so efficient that we have stripped all the money out by lunchtime and everybody’s had to go home. There’s no money left in anybody’s pocket."

*You can download Ken Livingstone's paper from his website.

Postscript: Lord James, by all accounts, is a bit bonkers, but the story was worth repeating...In reality, there are never afternoons when all the five bookies in the south of Deptford High Street are empty, and on any day, morning, noon and night, one may be fuller than another.

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