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.