An open letter to Eric Pickles

People are losing control of the public spaces they love. Give local councils a say over betting sho

People are losing control of the public spaces they love. Give local councils a say over betting shops.

Dear Mr Pickles,

I'm writing to invite you to Peckham. People here feel that their high streets are being inundated with betting shops. They feel that they are losing control of the public spaces they love. They look to me and my fellow councillors for leadership, but at present we don't have any meaningful powers to change things. You have the ability to grant us that authority, and we want to show you why.

High Streets First is a new campaign I've launched with the grassroots group Grasp asking you to give local councils a say over betting shops. We launched last week and broke 1,000 signatures in two days. Endorsements came in from MPs including Tom Watson, David Lammy and Harriet Harman. Conservative Councillor David Parsons and the LGA pledged their support for reform. Owen Jones and the blogs got on board. We received great press coverage, and more is on its way.

If you accept invitation an invitation to our borough, I'd start by giving you a tour. At present there are 77 betting shops in Southwark, and more are opening up as businesses close in the downturn. Local people are not against gambling, but they are against this kind of proliferation. On a map, it looks something like this:

map

Map: Harriet Harman MP. The Problem of Betting Shops. November 2011

I don't know how many betting shops there are in your Brentwood and Ongar constituency. I imagine less, because research from the Responsible Gambling Fund suggests they are clustering machines in areas that are poorest. In Southwark the average family income is £17k, and I pass eight bookies on the ten-minute walk to my council surgery.

Dirk Vennix, head of the Association of British Bookmakers, says that betting shops can bring life to empty high streets. I don't doubt that's true in some cases, but that's not happening here. People in Peckham say they are fuelling debt, addiction and anti-social behaviour. They say they are putting off other businesses by blighting the high street.

Some of the biggest concerns come from people who are in the betting industry themselves. This is what one manager from Camberwell, where there are five bookies within 200m, told me:

"In the area I'm in there aren't that many rich people coming in. People who are unemployed, people who are on benefits, and you get a lot of retired men coming in to pass the time. You get younger lot coming in thinking they're going to earn money. Seriously... we're quite close to the Maudsley (hospital for mental health) and we get people who are homeless wanting to double their money... some of the stores open at 7am and we get people coming in and spending their whole day going from one shop to the other, especially people with no money."

"...you have to deal with all sorts of personalities, and some can be very nasty. They do get violent as well. They kick the machines when they're losing. I've seen people pick up stalls and smash them over the machines. They're rude to me but it's just part of the job..."

"...I see people come in from the pawn shops and pay day loan shops, people who pawn their phone chasing their money (that's already been lost). You get to know the customers and they give you their life story and they take advantage. They say "borrow me £1 or £2 and I'll pay you back as soon as I've won". Sometimes they ask you just for a drink or something to eat. Some genuinely don't have the money for that at the end of the day."

This manager says he hates his job, but he does it to pay the bills and look after his daughter. His real dream is to be a youth worker, but there aren't that many opportunities available right now.

Local residents also have their concerns. Georgina Green, secretary of Consort Residents Association, is one of the hundreds who are leaving messages of support on our petition and via email:

Personally feel its morally wrong to encourage folk to gamble, yes to personal choice just not when every other shop screams lose your money to an already stressed out and depressed populous!

This isn't just an issue for Southwark. A number of local councils have tried to challenge unpopular new betting shops and failed. Recently a group of female councillors in Leeds lost a battle to stop a new Ladbrokes opening in the entrance to their historic Morley's market. More concerns have been raised in Northampton. Lewisham has also run into difficulties.

Your own independent review into high streets by Mary Portas recommended you grant local councils the power to decide how many betting shops they want on their streets. Doing this seems consistent with your proud and vocal commitment to localism, and it doesn't cost a penny. Local democracy should be a principle, not a gamble.

Please put High Streets First, and come to Peckham.

Yours,

Cllr Rowenna Davis

Rowenna Davis is a councillor, 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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage