Why something needs to be done about the betting industry

There are increasing concerns that stores are becoming more concentrated in poor and deprived areas.

"I'll pay you back as soon as I've won," says the guy blocking my way out. It's almost 10pm, and Ladbrokes is still open. I've come in to see what it's like, and accidentally won my bet back ten fold. Now everyone is watching me pocket my winnings in a neon lit room littered with failed paper bets. I'm surrounded by a group of guys in black padded jackets who ran out of money long ago.

Betting shops have always come with their problems, but the challenges they pose today are fundamentally different to the past. We are dealing with an industry that has become commodified, mechanised and -- in some of the poorest areas of our communities -- totally mainstream. Our democratic structures were not designed to deal with this, and they're failing. Something needs to be done.

Globalisation has transformed this industry. It means that betting is no longer limited by our country's sports seasons or daylight hours. Paddy Power outlets now open at 7am, allowing people to place bets on their way to work in the dark, and close at 10pm long after everything else on high street has shut. Racing in Paraguay, Australia and Japan means live races are happening constantly. In the shop I was in, they were taking bets on 130 live events a day.

And that's not including virtual races. In perhaps the oddest twist of the industry, the cashier showed me a timetable of virtual games that ran every four minutes. If there's nothing else on, customers can bet on a computer-generated horse that races on the big screen. Betting is no longer reserved for special events or particular players that you can research or form an emotional attachment to or even touch. It has become brutal, mechanistic and void.

Then, of course, there's the recent introduction of FOBTs -- slot machines offering games like Routlette and Bingo -- brought in over the last few years to keep you occupied in the one or two minutes you might still have free.

Gambling used to be social. But the increased speed and frequency of bets has short-circuited the need for human relationships. New mechanised cashiers mean you can gamble away a million without talking to a soul. Increased competition between the four big brands that dominate the market -- Bet Fred, Paddy Power, William Hill and Coral -- are aggressively competing by cutting staff. Mainstream betting shops no longer provide exciting, special experiences so much as fast, dirty transactions.

Betting shops are fast on their way to becoming 24 hour rooms manned by bouncers alone.

Although the total number of betting shops has remained relatively stable over the last five years, there are increasing concerns that stores are becoming more concentrated in poor and deprived areas such as Waltham Forest, Newham and Liverpool. Hackney has 64 betting shops -- three times the national average for a local authority -- and in my hometown of Southwark, important research from Harriet Harman has found 77. Meanwhile, David Lammy has pointed out that Tottenham has 39 bookmakers but not a single bookshop.

Betting shops cluster around particular high streets as well as certain boroughs. They are often conveniently located next to payday loan stores. Their staff, in colourfully branded caps and t-shirts, echo nearby fast food outlets. In Southwark, they are spreading on Rye Lane and the Walworth Road, opening up whenever another business goes under in the downturn. There are even rumours one may replace a local jobs centre.

"They (betting shops) are often located near post offices," says Ruth Champion, a therapeutic director from the problem gambling charity Gordon Moody. "We have to ask, are they targeting people coming out with a giro? It's getting harder and harder for the people we treat to be in a safe place."

All this is big money. The Gambling Commission estimates that the UK gambling industry was worth some £5.6 billion in 2010, and the betting sector represents 52 per cent of that market. It can't go on like this.

Ladbrokes on Peckham High Street was one of the shops kicked in during the August riots. I remember it left a cracked spider web of broken glass. There's a growing anger at these businesses from some of poorest people in the community I serve, and in others around the country. As a local councillor for the Lane, I want to revisit this topic, talk to the staff and customers in these shops and figure out what can be done. Although after the close call last night, I might go back at earlier hours.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

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

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.