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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.