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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.