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

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

0800 7318496