Spread of betting shops shows the coalition's failure on growth

BetFred and others are favoured by licensing laws that are weighted against communities.

We marched purposefully into the meeting room. BetFred wanted to open its twelfth betting shop in the borough, and representatives of local businesses, churches, residents and police groups had flocked to the licensing committee to fight it. Our case was watertight, but we lost. Our story reveals a shocking lack of power at a local level.

None of us were against gambling per se. We were simply against the way betting shops were spreading in Peckham and the problems they were bringing here. We couldn't have made our case any clearer. This is what one local betting shop manager said in the written evidence (pdf):

"I would say about 50 per cent of the people in my store are unemployed and many have drug problems and debt problems. Some come in from the  Maudsley (mental health) hospital... I also see a lot of violence and anti-social behaviour. People kick the machines and spit at them. Sometimes it is
directed against me. We are told not to report incidents in the store because it looks bad for our licensing rights."

Local police officers agreed that bookies were fuelling crime. Emma Hart, head of the local Safer Neighbourhood Team, opposed the application, and raised concerns about the extra demands the store would place on her resources:

"There is evidence that betting shops in the area are closely linked with anti social behaviour in the area ranging from drug dealing all the way through to patrons urinating in the street."

Then there were concerns about the vulnerable. Reverend Jonathan Mortimer of the local All Saints Church, said:

"We run a debt counseling service for local residents. The waiting list is already months long. We see a lot of people whose problems are made worse by gambling addiction, and I'm worried that another store will only add to those problems. We are all very proud of Peckham but there are a lot of vulnerable people here and my concern is that these companies take advantage of that."

Then there were concerns from local businesses. John Gionleka from Frog on the Green Deli added:

"I'm worried that the increased number of betting shops brings down the area and puts off customers from visiting the high street. How will the collective welfare and the financial well being of our neighbourhood be enhanced quantifiably by the establishment of a bookmaker across the road from an existing one?"

The only person to speak in favour of the betting shop was a solicitor on behalf of BetFred. They admitted they had conducted zero consultation with local people.

So why did we lose? The problem is that there is a legal presumption in favour of granting licences.

At present councils can only block betting shop applications if there is evidence of three problems - an increase in crime, a threat to the vulnerable or proof of loaded/unfair gambling.

But how can you provide evidence that a store is causing these problems before it opens? Reasonable reports from other stores and testimony from local people counts for nothing. Legal threats from large gambling companies count for everything.

The only other route for opposing bookies is through planning laws under something called Article 4 directions. But as I've explained before, these come with their own problems.

Nor is this just about betting shops. Pay day loan stores also can't be blocked by local councillors, as my brave colleague Claire Hickson has recently found out. 

Celebrity Mary Portas recently asked (pdf) for more powers for councils, but the government says we can already block bookies if we don't want them. Our experience shows just how out of touch they are.

Every time another betting shop opens, it is evidence that the economy is getting worse as the government's growth plan fails. Richer areas might be pulling through, but in poorer areas high streets are changing. Pay day loan companies, pawnbrokers and betting shops all feed off people suffering in the downturn. Once established, they are near-impossible to remove.

Back in Peckham, the new BetFred has agreed to meet us, but that's not good enough. The council's hands are tied. The whole situation feels  massively out of our control. I've just heard another betting shop is set to open after this one, and I don't know if my constituents will think this one's  worth the fight. If the government is serious about localism, it should realise it is time for change.

 

A BetFred shop in Central London. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR