Bookies vs Portas – who’s your money on?

This month has seen a response from the betting industry to the assertion made by Mary Portas that gaming outlets were a ‘blight on the high street’, and that their proliferation is creating unsightly gambling ‘clusters’ on struggling retail hotspots.

The perception that December’s High Street Review gave was that betting shops are wandering unbidden into troubled towns, sneaking into premises once occupied by banks, building societies and estate agents in order to fleece the community of its cash. Senior industry figures have now hit back, claiming that betting shops are taking space that would otherwise have been vacant, and that their contribution to both local and nationwide economies should dissipate any anti-gambling rancour.

The figures stack up for the gambling industry – employing an average of five workers per store, and paying an average of £10,000 annually in business rates as they contribute around £3 billion to the UK economy every year. With this in mind, it’s surely no bad thing to put them in a separate use class, creating a level of authority at council level to decide whether or not there are valid enough economic factors to give approval to a gambling venue in their community.

Research from the Local Government Association suggests that the issue is not one of isolated resentment of betting shops, or indeed the idea of gambling, but rather an uneasiness within communities about how simple it appears to be for a new bookmaker to appear in their town centre. The survey also implies that the public perceive betting shops as being similar to sex stores, fast-food takeaways and tanning salons in that they are all ‘blights’ on the high street.

In my view, creating a new use class for gambling outlets could help to de-construct this negative perception, and shift public focus towards the economic benefits that a bookmakers can have on a local economy, outlined as they would be in any ‘change of use’ application. This may then result in more demand-led outlets nationwide, as communities look to the gambling industry to provide their high streets with a shot in the arm – when necessary.

I can understand why the Association for British Bookmakers is a little bent out of shape over the possibility of putting their stores in a separate use class; and sees it as a deliberate piece of restrictive policy against them. However, I think in time they might well find there is more to be gained from contributing to communities with the blessing of councils and the public than forcing an unwanted presence into retail centres through scattergun, unrestrained expansion. 

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